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Romans 12:9-21 - Living in Love

Romans 12:9-21

Living in Love

Proper 17A

August 31, 2014

Listening to the list in our Epistle reading today leaves one practically exhausted. Paul writes to encourage God’s people but his words are often overwhelming to us. “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil. Hold fast to what is good. Love one another . . . be fervent in spirit . . . rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer” and that’s only a small portion of the first three verses. His list goes on and on.

Listening to his words it’s easy to feel unworthy. To wonder if the Holy Spirit could ever form within us all of these desires of God. Paul’s list is overwhelming and leaves us wondering, “Where do we start? What should we pay attention to? What is a Christian to do with all of these words?”

Let’s say you were to take one exhortation a day and really work on that one. So, for Monday, you take “Let love be genuine” and all day, you try to demonstrate genuine love. Passing by someone in the hall at work, you say, “how are you doing?” only this time you actually stop to listen and then you respond to what’s going on in her life. Tuesday you move to the next exhortation and work on “Abhor what is evil.” And so on and so forth. If you were to do this for every one of these exhortations, it would take you almost a month to get through the list. And that would be spending only one day on each one and assuming that you could actually do these things. Paul’s list of exhortations is overwhelming to the Christian.

Yet maybe St. Paul was trying to overwhelm God’s people – not with commands about what they had to be doing, but with a glimpse, just a glimpse of the kingdom of God, coming alive in their midst.

In our text this morning, Paul is not setting out a twelve-step program to “build the better spiritual you” but rather revealing the varied ways in which God is at work in the world. Remember last week we heard about how God gives His gifts through Word and Sacrament, gifts to be used in service of others for the glory of God, as we have been made into the body of Christ?  Now this week, we hear of a series of exhortations that come over us all at once, words can be confusing and challenging. We don’t know where to start. And that’s because we try to start with ourselves, rather than with God.  We try to start with what we should do rather than what God does for us, and through us.

These are the works that a Christian does because of Jesus. God in Christ has first loved us in this way and by His mercy, your salvation is secure and not dependent upon how well you love.  Our hope does not rest in our work, our ability to do such things well or completely, but in Jesus. The One who overcame evil with good.  The One who overcame death with life. He is the one who has done the will of the Father perfectly and completely, so that now, you are freed to do these things, imperfectly as they may be, but freed to do the God’s will without the burden of having to be good enough. In Jesus, these words become comforting and encouraging. They open our eyes to see the ways in which God is near us, very near us in daily life.

This is what Paul gives us a glimpse of in his letter today. Notice the type of things that Paul celebrates in his listing. They aren’t the big, grand gestures of worldly conquest. It’s not pulling yourselves up by your bootstraps.  Instead, it’s the small, seemingly inconsequential ways of God. Acts of brotherly affection. Caring for the needs of the saints. Taking notice of the lowly. And even loving one’s enemies. Offering a cup of water or a gift of food to an enemy who is thirsty and hungering. These are the ways of the kingdom of God. This is exactly what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 25 in His End Times discourse about the judgment of the sheep and the goats.

And this is what Jesus is talking about in our gospel reading. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.”  It looks like a life of cross bearing. It looks like a denial of sinful desires, of repentance over our sins, of following Jesus. Where does Jesus go? He goes to His death in service of the world.

God is in control and at work for the world in the self-sacrifice of Jesus. While the world tries to flex its muscles, some try to implement their deceptive strategies on being a better you, even through it all God is in control, at work for His world. And it all centers on the cross of Christ.  It is here that we see God’s work for us, and it is from here that God forgives your sins, your lack of work, your lack of motivation, your lack of love. This is the peace of God that passes all understanding, which is yours today through faith in Jesus.

For in Jesus, God has called you to be His people. He has forgiven you and made you His own through the waters of Baptism, and keeps you as His own through His Word and His body and blood. Because of His work on the cross and the resurrection, He continues to work in you and through you by the power of his Holy Spirit to forgive your sins, to grant and sustain eternal life and salvation, and to share this Good News with the world.  Amen.

Romans 12:1-8 - Transformed for Service

Romans 12:1-8

Transformed for Service

Proper 16A

August 24, 2014

Here they are, just your normal, everyday Christians.  The Roman Christians, a mix of Jewish and Gentile believers, seemed to be nothing special to the world around them. Not many of them were rich. Not many of them were powerful. They gathered together in house churches, their lives a far cry from the glories of Rome much less the glories of heaven. And yet, Paul writes to them about their Christian lives, founded on the confession of faith of who Jesus is as the Christ, the Son of the Living God. “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship” (12:1).

Notice how Paul uses the language of sacrifice. The sacrificial worship of God’s people, that glory of the temple in Jerusalem, is suddenly transformed. God’s people become sacrifices, outside the temple, outside Jerusalem, hidden inside the small house churches gathering in the heart of the large empire of Rome. These people are God’s people, transformed into sacrifices, living, holy, acceptable to God. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ put an end to temple sacrifices. His death was the perfect sacrifice. He was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. By His sacrifice, God’s people are freed from offering sacrifices for sins; freed to become sacrifices. Living sacrifices of praise. As they poured out their lives in service in the world.

As Paul looks at the people in Rome, he sees the body of Christ at work in the world. Paul speaks of the gifts of the Spirit poured out upon the people – prophecy, service, teaching, exhortation, contribution, leadership, and mercy. Not only does God freely forgive all sins but he also freely bestows all gifts, so that people have a purpose and a place in God’s greater story. God has a greater plan for each person in his story of salvation.

You see, God has brought about your salvation in Jesus, who is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. He has offered the perfect sacrifice that takes away your sin, that forgives your blindness and opens your eyes to see and your lives to celebrate the working of God. God does more than work in the lives of others. He works in your life . . . for others . . . in this world. This is why Paul starts to name gifts – actions such as teaching, service, leadership, mercy. His list is not complete. It is only suggestive. But Paul names these things so that you can see how God is at work in your life. Paul invites you today to be transformed by the renewal of your mind. He encourages you to test and discern God’s good and gracious will in your life.

Teachers at our school present yourselves as a living sacrifice of God. Confirmation students, present yourselves as a living sacrifice for God. The rest of you, do the same. What you cannot do, you can support with your tithes and offerings, with your prayers, with your encouragement. You don’t have to be perfect for this to apply to you.  It’s because you’re not perfect that it does. He transforms you by the Gospel into a living sacrifice, not to make up for past or present of future sins, but because you are forgiven in Christ, equipped to use His gifts in service to others flowing from the grace of God in Christ.

The stewardship of our gifts all rests on the confession of faith of who Jesus is – the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  It rests on receiving the gifts of God, gifts that He gives only through His Word, through the blessed waters of baptism, and His very body and blood. The greatest gift is that of repentance and faith in Christ. It is from here that all these others which St. Paul writes about stem from.  So repent over not doing what you should. Repent over trying to steal the credit for what God does through you.  Failure to use your gifts and the grace of God does not make faith a lie.  Jesus’ forgiveness covers your past, present, and future sins.  Repent, and believe that the gifts of God are given to give you the benefits of Christ crucified for the forgiveness of your sins.

He calls us to see the glory of God, hidden in the lives of his people, in self-sacrificial service on earth. Our world would have us conform to its ways. Seek glory and power by gaining things for ourselves. In the ways of our world, religion can become one more tool we use to make ourselves better. Claiming the power of God to gain glory on earth. For the apostle Paul, there was some concern that the Roman Christians would take pride in their status and gifts for service. Paul warns them, “For by the grace given to me I say to everyone not to think of himself more highly than he ought” (12:3).  This is a big problem still today. Too often, we tend to think of our great works and service and try to take credit for them.  We crave the attention, the pat on the back, and the “thank you.”

God’s ways are different, however. Humble. Hidden. Sacrificial. Selfless. In a world attracted to glory. You have been joined to the body of Christ. Made part of his people by the forgiveness of your sins. And Paul now invites you, in view of God’s mercies, to no longer be conformed to this world but to be transformed for service by the Word of God, by the font, and by the altar. To live by giving rather than gaining. By service rather than selfishness.

In this way, the church reflects of the glory of Christ. It reveals the ways of God in the world. You are the body of Christ, drawn into His work. Your lives are monuments of His self-sacrificial love. Your life joined to Christ. “A living sacrifice, holy, and acceptable to God.” In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Romans 11:1-2a, 13-14, 28-32 - No Regret

Romans 11:1-2a, 13-14, and 28-32

Proper 15A

August 17, 2014

Regret.  What is it that you regret?  Everyone here today has something, something big or something little.  Something from your childhood, or more recently. We regret things in our lives, bad choices, wrong actions, sin that hangs around our necks, broken promises.

But we are unique in this respect.  St. Paul writes, “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable,” Irrevocable literally the means without regret.  For God, there is no looking back and wondering if He made the right decision, or wished He could have done it better, or that things could have been different. God is without regret. God does not regret making a good world, one that rejected His word and fell into sin. God does not regret making promises that, in order to keep, would mean the death of His Son, Jesus. God does not regret calling you to faith, and the gifts He has given to you, even when you squander and abuse them. God’s promise, heard throughout the Old Testament Scripture, have become real in the flesh and blood of Jesus.

            In that promise, God promised that he would bring salvation through Israel, through a descendent of David, and that this salvation would reach to the ends of the earth. Though all nations were disobedient to God, God chose one nation, the people of Israel, to be his people and to bring his message of salvation to earth. When some of those people rejected their Messiah, the descendent of David, did God then reject his plan? No. God continued to be merciful. He called forth all nations to believe in Jesus Christ and to receive the forgiveness of sins. Now, faced with Israel’s disobedience, will God forget his mercy? No. Paul lives in hope of an even greater day. A day when his work among the Gentiles might lead Israel, his brothers and sisters in the flesh, into the Church, his brothers and sisters in faith.

Just as the Gentiles were once disobedient and now received mercy, Paul sees a day when the Jews who are now disobedient will be led to repentance and receive God’s mercy. God has consigned all to disobedience, both Gentiles and Jews, that he might have mercy upon all, both Gentiles and Jews. Paul thus lives by hope, by a vision of God’s salvation gathering Jews and Gentiles together in one body, one church, one new Israel, that holds one faith in one God – Jesus Christ who forgives all people of their sins.

Our American culture prides itself on freedom of religion. People are able to believe what they want to believe. You’ve seen the bumper stickers that encourage attendance at the church or synagogue or mosque of your choice. You’ve seen the bumper stickers that use various symbols of various faiths to spell out the word, “Coexist.” The larger vision of these bumper stickers is that there are many paths to God and there are many people and we need to respect and appreciate these various ways to God. If all of the religions would just get along, there would be peace in the land. To practice your own faith is one thing and our American culture will support that.

But to speak about your faith, as if it might matter to someone else, well that is a different matter. You can worship God and speak to God however you want, believing God to be whatever you want him or her to be. But to speak to others about God or to act as if your God might have a word that is important to others, well that is considered argumentative, disrespectful of others, stirring up conflict, and in some cases even participating in hate speech. So while our culture will protect your right to worship God as you please, it also protects the rights of others and cautions you to be careful about bringing your God to them.

In such a culture, it would be easy to let everyone practice his or her own faith. It would be easy to fall into the false idea that our faith is a personal matter, something that is just between “you and Jesus.” The apostle Paul, however, knows differently. To be joined to Christ is to be joined to his mission and God chooses to be at work through His people.

God has a greater story for this world. It is not a story of peace by toleration of various religions. It is story of peace found in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for salvation from sin. All have been disobedient. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (3:23). And yet, God is faithful to his promise to have mercy on all. All “are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ” (3:24). When you come near to Jesus, when you are brought to faith by the work of the Holy Spirit through His word, you are then sent near to those who are in need of Jesus, Jews and Gentiles, neighbors and family, as God continues to work out His story of bringing salvation to the ends of the earth. And God has no regret over this calling and giving of His gifts.

This is highlighted even further in our Gospel reading for today. Here, a Canaanite woman comes to Jesus pleading for the welfare of her demon oppressed daughter. She cries our over and over again to Jesus for mercy. The language she uses is that of a believing Israelite, even though she is a Gentile. She uses the language of faith, the language that God speaks to His people.  And it is this faith that our Gospel reading focuses upon. This woman trusted that Jesus’ abundance could extend far enough to include a repentant enemy of God. She knew her position, sinful and unclean, but she also trusted in God’s gracious nature. His crumbs would be enough for her.

This is a truth that we need to be reminded of, as well, and the point which St. Paul is making in Romans 11.  As God comes into this world, he finds disobedience among all nations, but God remains faithful to his promises and works mercy, mercy for all peoples, Jews and Gentiles, in Christ. Though the world be disobedient, God remains merciful. Merciful to all people who believe in Jesus Christ.

We speak that same language of faith, that which God has already spoken to us. We approach Jesus with humility, as beggars. We cry out in the Kyrie, “Lord have mercy!” And then He does! He speaks forgiveness through the Word. He feeds us with His body and His blood, as small of portions as they might be on a given Sunday, but even that much grace is more than enough!

God’s word brings people to life, people like the apostle Paul, and people like you and me. And God’s word then reaches out to others through the lives of his people. Each person becomes one more revelation in the flesh of God’s mission of mercy in this world. What conversation is God calling you to have with others? What strange and difficult speech is God calling you to say? It may be bold or it may be quiet. It may be large, like a life-long conversation with your father, or it may be small, like a brief conversation with a stranger on the bus. But it is God’s word at work through His people in the world. We are a people who live by a proclamation – the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. God is here, today, for you. Forgiving you your sin.

And God is here, today, for all, seeking to bring them to the faith. He will not stop. He will not remain silent. He will not regret calling and equipping you to fulfill His vision of bringing all nations into one body, the Church, the new Israel, in Christ. Amen.

Romans 8:18-27 - Suffering and Glory

Romans 8:18-27

Suffering and Glory

Proper 11A

July 20, 2014


You people. You people know something about the sufferings of this present time. You know them rather intimately and you’d really rather not. Suffering, particularly the suffering of those we love, has a way of consuming all our vision. Like a massive vacuum it sucks our vitality and energy right down. 

Today the Holy Spirit through St. Paul gives us a different way of thinking about suffering. You see, he holds all the pain and sorrow of this life up against the glory that waits for us. And he finds that the sufferings are simply outweighed.  “The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).

So Paul writes to the Romans to help them stand in this painful moment looking forward to the final revealing of God’s Son. And his words come to us to help us stand here today. In Christ, we have been made into the children of God. This is sure. This is certain. His death has destroyed the power of sin for you and His resurrection has brought you the promise of a new creation. Yet what you are is not fully seen and experienced in this world. Take a deep close look at God’s people, Paul says, and you will see a people, just like you sitting here, imprisoned and suffering, groaning because they desire to be free.

So we stand, awkwardly positioned between the sufferings of this present world and the glory yet to be revealed. And in this place, the apostle Paul asks us to meditate on our situation and to trust in the work of the Holy Spirit.

If we meditate on our situation, we can see deep suffering among God’s people. In America, Christianity used to be a strong cultural force. Prayer was said in public schools. At graduation, high schools would hold baccalaureate services led by ministers. We don’t see this much anymore, and it makes the necessity of our school that much more apparent.

St. Paul knew the suffering status of Christians in this world. In Rome, Christianity was not a legal established religion. It confronted barriers to the expression of its faith. Christians sought to worship one God in a city that had many gods. Christians sought to confess “Jesus is Lord” in a city that confessed “Caesar is Lord.” Christians worshipped a person who had been associated with insurrection, was publicly tried and condemned and crucified. This suffering Jesus ruled over a suffering people.

Christians were marginalized, and things today are similar to how they used to be then. In December, one could find a nativity prominently displayed in the public square. That connection between Christianity and American culture is dying. We find ourselves being marginalized. Pushed further and further away from public notice, written into a smaller and smaller corner of the public square where we are viewed as unwelcomed, different, even extreme. Such experiences are frightening. It looks like we are losing strength, like we will not survive. Across the board, church attendance is dropping. Some might even wonder if God has abandoned us.  How can we be God’s people, the church, in a post-Christian and sometimes anti-Christian nation?

These are not new questions.  The Roman Christians were meeting in small homes rather than huge and beautiful churches. They were populated by slaves rather than powerful rulers. Soon, they would experience persecution. They would carry their dead into caves and tunnels carved under ground and hold worship services there in the dark, in the place of the dead, crying out to the firstborn of the dead.  He opens our ears so we hear one more cry, one more groan. The groaning of the Spirit, who is interceding for you.

St. Paul writes, “Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27). In these words, Paul joins groans with a glorious vision.

On the one hand, the Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words. There are times when we are at a loss for words. The suffering we have seen in this world, the longing we have for the new creation is so strong and so deep that we cannot find words to express it. What do you say when you go to a funeral? You stand there, your heart filled with groans that words cannot express. What do you say when you hear that the diagnosis is cancer?  When tornados rip through towns leaving only rubble in its wake. We have trouble speaking to one another, and even more trouble speaking to God. At moments like this, Paul asks us to listen. To hear the groaning. The Spirit takes our suffering and puts it into prayer.

On the other hand, these groans of the Spirit are joined to glory. The glorious desires of God for his people. For all creation. Paul says that “the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom. 8:27). The Spirit knows the deep mysteries of our suffering. The Spirit also knows the deep mysteries of God. God’s vision of a new creation. You have been joined by baptism to God’s new creation in Christ. God is at work in you. He is shaping your lives, forming your faith, working in small and sometimes painful ways as He continues His promise to bring about His kingdom.

When you experience suffering and find ourselves not sure how to put all of this into words, the Spirit Himself speaks for you. He brings your petitions to the throne of the Father. Your suffering touches God’s glory in the words of the Spirit for through the suffering of God’s Son, God’s glory is made certain for you.

Christianity may be losing cultural power in America, but there is no loss of a sure and certain hope. God rules over all creation. The Spirit knows the mind of God and He hears our cries and prays for us according to God’s will. He sees your life, He knows your suffering, and He has sent His Spirit to be present for you. He listens to your groans, and He puts your life into prayer according to God’s will, that you would be conformed to the image of the Son of God, Although you suffer in this world, you are heirs of the next, predestined and called by the Spirit, justified by faith in the crucified and risen Jesus, eagerly awaiting the glory of the resurrection of the dead and life everlasting.

Genesis 1:1–2:4a Putting the Good Into Creation

Genesis 1:1–2:4a

Putting the Good Into Creation

June 15, 2014

Trinity Sunday A

“In the beginning… it was good.” How many times have we heard that phrase.  In the beginning, it was good six times in six days. The light, the dry land and seas, vegetation, the sun and moon and stars, animals, and mankind. In the beginning… God saw everything that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” But now…

Much has evidently changed. In five short chapters in Genesis, we have moved from the repeated refrain “it is good,” a refrain culminating in the Creator who steps back and declares it is “very good,” to regret.  In Genesis 6:5-6, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.  And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and it grieved Him in His heart.”  Regret over creating man and being grieved to the point of destroying not just man but creation itself suffered greatly because of the Flood. The problem may have begun with one man, but its effects have spread to the point where God decides to blot out not only man but “animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens” as well.

Brokenness begins in the actions of Adam and spreads through all creation.  It seems as though goodness doesn’t always last long since the Fall into sin.  In the beginning it was a good idea, it worked well, but not now.  In the beginning the food was good, but once it sat out, it spoiled.   In the beginning, the job was good, but now it’s just work.  In the beginning, our friendship was good, but now it’s just gossip and backbiting. In the beginning the marriage was good, but now the romance and love has fizzled. We live in a world, in a creation by a good God, that while once declared good by its Creator, now has evil running ramped.  In Psalm 14:2-3, King David observes the same thing as from before the Flood, “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God.  They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” Sin has infested you and I and all of creation, turning what was good into evil, corrupting the way things were supposed to be, making you and I into poor, miserable sinners deserving only present and eternal punishment.

This impulse to undo His creation is not limited to the Flood. While God promises not to destroy the world in flood again, He does bring destruction upon man and creation due to His anger over their sin. Consider Sodom and Gomorrah where God razes not only the city but “what grew on the ground as well,” or his repeated threats to destroy his own people (Exodus 32, Numbers 16), to say nothing of the repeated depictions of the “Day of the Lord” throughout the writings of the prophets.  These are strong words to us here today as well, that God does not tolerate evil, He does not condone sin, He does not put up with something, or someone, that is not “good.”

And so repent.  Repent of the good you should have done but did not do. Repent of the evil thoughts and desires in your heart. Repent for taking what is good in God’s creation and twisting it into something different.  Repent for thinking that if you just try hard enough, if you are just “good” enough, then you will be “good” – a good husband, a good wife, a good father or mother, a good employee, a good Christian.  I hate to break it to you, but your goodness does not come from you, from what you do, but it comes only from God.  Your goodness is alien to you, not inherent to you.  Repent and believe that Jesus Christ is the only One who is truly good, and that in Christ alone, God is able to look at something He made and say again, “It is good”

Ponder again of when Jesus was baptized.  As the Father’s Son—He who was there at the beginning and through whom all things were made—stands in a river being baptized, the heavens are torn open, the Holy Spirit appears in the form of a dove, and the Father declares, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” (Mt 3:17). It is through this man, the new Adam, that God steps back and declares of his creation “it is very good.”

Take away Christ, and there is no more good.  Hebrews 11:6 states, “And without faith, it is impossible to please Him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that He exists and rewards those who seek Him.”  Only justified people, who are led by the Spirit of Christ, can do good works. Without faith and Christ as Mediator, good works do not please (Ap V 251). 

Ponder your own baptism.  While there was nothing good in you, in the name of the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – God put the good of the crucified and risen Jesus into you.  Redemption begins in the second Adam and spreads through all of creation, and to you, in those blessed waters, in the body and blood of Christ, in the only News that is truly Good, right, and salutary.  The good of creation comes in God making it good and declaring it to be good.  Made by God’s Word, hovered over and breathed life spoken, the evil of your sin, the good that you lack because of the Fall, is given to you by God’s grace, received by faith.

Acts 2:1-21 "Filled with the Spirit"

Acts 2:1-21

Filled with the Spirit

June 8, 2014

Day of Pentecost/Confirmation Day

Today we celebrate Pentecost, one of the most important Christian holidays of the year.  On this day, St. Peter preaches to us, “And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.”  On Pentecost, God pours out His Spirit upon those Disciples because He wanted to include the whole world into His covenant.  And so He has to you as well who have been baptized into Christ, calling you to privately and publicly bear witness to Christ crucified for forgiveness of sins.

The entire Book of Acts emphasizes Gods’ mission of carrying the Gospel to all people and joining them into the body of Christ through Baptism.  In Baptism, God pours out His Holy Spirit.  We are called to imitate not the experience of that Pentecost so long ago, but to turn to God’s promise of renewal in Baptism through daily repentance.  Then, turn around and filled with the peace of Christ and with His Word in your heart and on your tongue, bear witness to others of that which you have received in Christ.

The Holy Spirit teaches you a new language, the language of Christ, the language He speaks in His Word.  He teaches you “Christian.”  That is part of what we are doing today as we celebrate not just Pentecost, but the confirmation of a sister in Christ.  Confirmation teaches you to speak Christian by the power of the Holy Spirit working through God’s Word.

Confirmation is simply one step in the life of the Christian.  It is not an end to anything.   It is not a graduation.  You do not graduate from Church.  You do not graduate from studying God’s Word with other Christians in Sunday School and Bible study. You do not move on to something different, certainly not something less.  It does not bestow any more grace, or a different grace.  It is a declaration of the work of the Spirit in your life, that you are a Christian who has been baptized, confesses the faith, and is in communion with Christ and His Church.

Christians are disciples of Jesus - catechumens - for life, not just for a couple years of confirmation instruction.  We learn from God’s Word continually as we sit together at Jesus’ feet in the Christian congregation and in the Christian home.  From His Word, we learn that we are sinners, we learn repentance, we learn to confess our sins to God and to one another, we learn to trust in Him for the forgiveness of sins, we learn to forgive others as they sin against us, we learn to live faithfully in our vocations in life.  Catechesis involves doing those things that we Christians will continue to do for the rest of our lives.

Consider your Confirmation Vows.  Marie, you will make these shortly.  The rest of you, for the most part, already have, and need to be reminded what it is that you actually promised.  The very first question asked is this, “Do you this day in the presence of God and of this congregation acknowledge the gifts that God gave you in your Baptism?”  Do you renounce the devil? Do you believe in God? Do you confess the truth of God’s Word as learned through the Small Catechism?  Do you intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully?  Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, continuing steadfast in this confession of faith even to death?  Whenever we get to celebrate a person who is confirmed, we ought to be reminded of our promises.  And our promise to help this young women continue to remain steadfast in the truth faith to life everlasting.

But those who refuse to learn deny Christ and do not belong to Him.  This is a harsh reality, especially in our world of cultural relativism and individualism.  But this is simply a denial of the work of the Holy Spirit, a rejection of the Gospel itself.  We spoke of this last night during the Confirmation examination in the Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath by keeping it holy.” What does this mean?  We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold is sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

Faith in Christ lives from the preaching of the Gospel and the reception of Christ’s sacraments, and this faith expresses itself in the Christian’s life of prayer, confession of faith before the world, confession and absolution in the home and in the world, acts of mercy toward our neighbor, and faithfulness in our vocations.  The gifts of God for the support of this body and life. The Holy Spirit provides for our greatest needs. Through the very ordinary means of words, water, bread, and wine to do the most extraordinary things through the Gospel.  And our response ought to be much like those who witnessed the Disciples proclaiming the mighty deeds of God in their own language, “What does this mean?”

Above all, the work of the Holy Spirit throughout the life of a Christian, from baptism to confirmation to marriage to burial is to direct you to Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  As Marie wrote in her Confirmation essay answering the question of how and why she will remain steadfast in the true faith, “” To help my friends and community to find their way to Jesus by my morals and devotion in the way of my faith in words and deeds.”  What you wrote about is simply that same confession of faith, that same zeal, that same Gospel truth in our Epistle reading, “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Marie, baptized brothers and sisters in Christ, what you need, what you have, is the God who looks at you and all your sins and still loves you.  Not a God who lets you off the hook but a God who is honest with you and who teaches you to be honest about yourself.  And a God who does not leave you to my mess but takes you, washes you clean in Baptism, teaches you a new language, the language of repentance and confession, imparts to you the Holy Spirit so that your feeble heart trusts something other than yourself, and feeds you the food of heaven.  Thanks be to God that God has guided you in the true faith, and sustains you there by Word and Sacraments, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Acts 7:2a, 51-60 Receive My Spirit

Acts 7:2a, 51-60

Receive My Spirit

Easter 5A

May 18, 2014

We all like to be a part of a winning team. Up to this point in the book of Acts, the church was the winning team. Yes, there had been arrests and there had been threats. However, the believers were bold, public preaching was well received, and the harvest was bountiful. If you remember from a few weeks ago, we heard in Acts 2 how 3000 people believed and were baptized when they heard the Peter’s Pentecost Sermon.  Then, those new believers had everything in common, they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and prayer.  So far, the church was making great strides.

The nature of “winning” for the church changes with the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. Stephen is mentioned in Acts chapters 6-7 as one of the seven deacons appointed by the Church to provide for the needs of the poor in the Christian community in Jerusalem.  Because of his powerful witness to the Gospel, Stephen was brought before the Jewish Sanhedrin, where he boldly confessed Christ.  Infuriated, the Sanhedrin took him outside of the city and stoned him to death.  Stephen was the Church’s first martyr as he died for the faith.  He is remembered for commending himself to Christ in death when he said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and for forgiving those murdering him with the words, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59-60).

The text gives us two words that form Stephen’s response—grace and power. Notice the event begins with, “And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8).

We are told that Stephen had great power. Yet in this tragic event, he does not seem to be very powerful. There are no great signs and wonders to persuade anyone. There are no thunderbolts from heaven to terrify the enemy. In fact, he is taken outside the city like trash and put down like a sick animal. The picture hardly fits the world’s standard of power. Yet there is no greater power than confidence in God’s word to work through our weaknesses. While miracles would continue, increasingly power among the believers would be understood as a bold witness of Christ in the face of persecution.

Grace is the second word that formed Stephen’s response to persecution. Notice two things about Stephen’s example of grace. First, he had no trouble calling the people out for their sins. He pointed out how their ancestors had rejected God’s prophets. He calls them out for trusting in Solomon’s temple, rather than the God who had made his dwelling among his people. He pulls no punches calling them “stiff-necked” and “uncircumcised.” This would hardly seem to be the words of a “grace-filled” servant of the word. Yet we are reminded in God’s word that we have been called to “speak the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). Grace spoken with his dying breath gained greater significance because he laid the foundation of sin with the law. Stephen called them out for their sin and then released them of their guilt with his final words of intercession.

Finally, notice God’s grace in persecution. Jesus foretold of his death with these words from John’s gospel: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn 12:24). Stephen scattered the seeds of God’s word even as the people spilled his blood. A young man stood nearby as a witness, Saul. God would transform Saul the persecutor to Paul the apostle. Through Paul’s preaching, the Gospel would go forth to the Gentiles.

The church’s response to persecution mirrors Stephen’s response.  This text challenges us to understand our strength in the face of persecution.  None of us here like to be persecuted, ridiculed, disliked because of anything, much less our faith in Christ.  How would you hold up to this kind of persecution?

So where do we go for strength in such things? Do you just dig down deep to find the courage and strength to stand against such things?  Our strength is in the power of God’s Word. We make use of that strength when we are bold to witness to Christ. Have faith that because Christ has died, because Christ has been raised, because Christ now reigns, your life, and your death, are secure with Him.  We pray in Luther’s Morning and Evening Prayer, “For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul and all things…” This is what we are praying each morning and evening in these prayers.

We ought to be humbled by Stephen’s boldness. Think about the times you have been silent in your witness to Christ. Certainly, there were times when your witness was not needed. However, there have been times when you were simply afraid, afraid of saying the wrong thing, afraid of offending others, afraid of getting into a fight, afraid of being on the “losing” side of things.  Well, I hate to tell you, to the world you are already are.

Such is the way with God’s reigning in Christ and His work of redemption.  To the world, Jesus lost with His death on the cross.  In the losing of His life, He gains eternal life for you, He forgives your sins.  Winning is not found in the glamour and prestige of the world, but in the cross of Christ, who is the way, the truth, and the life. 

This text challenges us to let God’s grace define our witness; grace that speaks the truth in love, grace that calls a thing what it is, and grace that sows the seeds of forgiveness. In the martyrdom of Stephen, we are reminded that God’s word is always active and effective and the winning team. We may not see positive effects of the gospel seeds we sow, but the promise is there. By the power of the Holy Spirit, when the time is right, that seed will sprout into faith.