Thursday, May 29, 2014

Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord

                                                                                    Lk 24:44-53

                        During the summer of 1985 the movie “Back to the Future” was released and I saw it in the theater.  The movie told the fun story of how a high school student named Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, was accidently sent back to 1955 in a time machine made out of a DeLorean automobile by his friend Emmet “Doc” Brown.  There, he accidentally interferes with the moment when his mother and father meet.  Instead of his father, his mother ends up having the hots for him.
            It soon becomes clear that this change in the past has threatened McFly’s existence in 1985.  Marty and the younger 1955 “Doc” Brown must then work both to make sure Marty’s parents end up together and also that he is able to use the time machine to return to 1985 using a lightning strike as a power source.
            The movie was hugely successful – it had the fourteenth highest domestic gross profit of all time.  It wasn’t hard to understand why.  The story tapped into 1950’s nostalgia and developed the always intriguing potential consequences of time travel.  Michael J. Fox was at the top of his game playing a role that was perfect for him.  And the story involved the theme of teenage love, as Marty’s awkward teen father seeks to gain the affection of Marty’s pretty teen mother, played by Lea Thompson – a theme with which I identified as a geeky fifteen year old.
            Marty successfully gets his parents together and returns to 1985.  There he finds that his interaction in 1955 has changed things for the better. All is well as McFly is reunited with his girlfriend, Jennifer Parker. And then the movie ends as Doc Brown arrives in the time machine and tells McFly that he and Jennifer must come with him to the future to fix a problem caused by their children.
            It was the invitation to a sequel.  And so in the fall of 1989 my best friend and I went to see “Back to the Future II.”  The movie itself fell far short of the original.  But that wasn’t the reason that we left disgusted when the movie was done.  It turned out that the convoluted plot didn’t bring the story to a close.  Instead the movie “ended” with Marty McFly trapped in 1955 and Doc Brown sent back to 1885.  What was not known in that time before the internet was that they had filmed two movies at once.  Back to the Future II simply set up Back to the Future III, which was released in the spring of 1990.   I was so put off by the fact that I was expected to see another movie to know how the story turned out that to this day, I have never watched Back to the Future III.
            In our Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord we encounter something that is quite similar.  We hear about the ascension of Jesus Christ as the Gospel comes to a close.  However, we aren’t told anything about what the ascension means.  We hear about the “promise of my father” and about being “clothed with power from on high” but we aren’t told exactly what this is.  In fact the end of the Book of Luke is setting up the sequel, Luke’s second volume – the Book of Acts.  And so if we want to understand the ascension in Luke, we will have to look ahead to the sequel.
            The Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord is firmly fixed in the resurrection of Easter.   In fact, if we only had the Gospel of Luke we wouldn’t know that there was a span of time between the resurrection and the ascension. 
            Jesus has appeared in the midst of the disciples and has demonstrated to them that it really is he – that he has risen bodily from the dead.  They think they are seeing a ghost or spirit, so Jesus responds, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And then to prove the point he eats some fish in front of them.
            Next Jesus the risen Lord talks about the past and the future.  First, he gives them insight into what had just happened.  He says, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.”
            Our Lord tells them that his suffering, death and resurrection fulfilled the whole of the Old Testament.  And then he turns to the future and adds, “…that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”  The message about Jesus will be one of repentance and forgiveness because Jesus gives forgiveness to repentant sinners.
            Next we hear, “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.”  Jesus is carried into heaven and when we finish the book the disciples are blessing God in Jerusalem.
            Quite often, that’s where the Church leaves things.  We confess in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds that Jesus “ascended into heaven.” We state the fact of the ascension - but that’s about it. And you can see this reflected in the number of people who show up for an Ascension Day service – and in the fact that quite a number of Lutheran churches don’t even have a service today.
            However, Luke doesn’t view it that way.  He begins his second volume – the Book of Acts – with another account of the ascension.  There we learn that the “power from on high” for which the disciples are to wait in Jerusalem is the Holy Spirit.
            The Day of Pentecost arrives in chapter 2, and as Peter explains what is happening he says, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’  Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
            Peter says that the ascension of Jesus is his exaltation to the right hand of God.  The ascension of Jesus demonstrates that he is the Lord.  Jesus, who had completed the saving mission set forth in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms, receives exaltation in the presence of God the Father.  And as such, he is the one who has poured out the Holy Spirit.
            For now, we don’t see Jesus in the way the disciples did on Easter.  Instead, we have the Means of Grace. We have God’s Word, read and preached.  We have the water of Holy baptism.  We have the words of Holy Absolution.    We have the bread and wine of the Sacrament of the Altar.  At times we may be inclined to think that this is not enough; that we need more.
            However, the ascension of Jesus Christ declares that this is not true.  It is not true because these are the means by which Jesus, exalted to the right hand of God as Lord, is at work.   Jesus, the Son of God has given them to us, and God the Father has exalted the Son in the ascension. We may struggle in trying to express it adequately, but Scripture is clear that the exaltation of Christ brings something new.  St. Paul described this when he referred to “the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.” The Means of Grace are now the means by which the exalted Lord forgives sins and strengthens us in the faith.
            And those same Means of Grace are now used by the Spirit whom the ascended Lord has poured forth.  Jesus ascended into heaven, and in that exaltation he has now poured forth the Spirit – his Spirit, the Holy Spirit – to bring the benefits of his work.  Because he has poured forth the Spirit, the Means of Grace are the instruments by which Jesus creates and sustains faith. They are the means through which his Spirit is at work in our midst – and as we have been hearing Jesus say in the Gospel lessons from John during the last few Sundays, this is in fact better for us than Jesus being present in the way that we might want.
            The Lord has ascended and has poured forth the Spirit. And these facts declare to us that the end has begun.  They tell us that we are in the Last Days and they urge us to look with hope and eager expectation to that day when the ascended Lord will return.   In the third chapter of Acts Peter says, “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.”
            Because Jesus has ascended we can now look forward to the restoration of all things.  We can look forward to the day when the risen Lord will return and transform our bodies to be like his.  We can look forward to the day when he will renew his creation and make it very good once again.  We can look forward to the day when there will no longer be any misunderstanding about what good news it is that Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven.

Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord

Today is The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord. Forty days after His resurrection, Jesus Christ ascended into heaven and exalted as our incarnate Lord He took His place at the right hand of God.

Scripture reading:
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.  And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:1-11).

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, as Your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, ascended into the heavens, so may we also ascend in heart and mind and continually dwell there with Him, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Sermon for the Sixth Sunday of Easter - Rogate

                                                                                                Easter 6
                                                                                                Jn 16:23-30

            Tomorrow is Memorial Day, a day on which the United States remembers those who have given their lives in service our nation.  The most costly war our country has fought against a foreign enemy was World War II.   It was a war that began in an unexpected way – with the surprise attack by the Japanese against Pearl Harbor.  On that one day, 2,403 Americans were killed.
            However, the surprise of the beginning of the war in the Pacific was not limited to an attack on a single day.  Instead Americans were shocked by the rapid series of successes that the Japanese army and navy had against the United States.  Not only did the Japanese conquer the British, French and Dutch territories in east Asia, but they rapidly overran the American ones in the Pacific as well.
            For six months the United States experienced defeat after defeat.  Wake Island, Guam and the Philippines fell to the Japanese.  By May 1942, nearly half of the forty ships of the U.S. Asiatic fleet had been sunk, and the rest had retreated to Australia.
            These events came as a complete shock to the American public and many in the U.S. military because they thought that they knew the Japanese – they thought that they understood them.  They thought that the Japanese were little, yellow, rice eating men who came from a backwards country and would easily be defeated.
            Americans thought they understood the Japanese. But in fact they were completely mistaken.  Instead of the caricature, the Japanese had a large and very professional army and navy that was already combat tested by the conflict in China.  They had weapons like the Zero fighter plane and Long Lance torpedo that were superior to anything the U.S. had at the start of the war.  That had superior training in naval operations at night.  And they were willing to fight to the death – to the very last man – rather than suffer the dishonor of surrender.  The Japanese would prove to be a formidable opponent who could only be defeated at a high cost in American lives at places like Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
            In our Gospel lesson this morning, the disciples think that they understand what Jesus is saying.  However, they are in fact completely mistaken.  Their misunderstanding would soon be demonstrated as they scattered and abandoned Jesus, just as he said they would.  Yet in Jesus’ words this morning we learn again about the difference that the resurrection of Jesus Christ makes.  And we must take up the question of whether we really understand and accept what this means for our lives.
            Jesus begins our Gospel lesson this morning by saying, “In that day you will ask nothing of me.”  “That day” is what Jesus has just been talking about, as we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel lesson.  He had said, “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.”  The disciples had no idea what Jesus meant.  They did not understand.  In fact they said to each other, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We do not know what he is talking about.”
            Our Lord knew this, and so he went on to say, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
            It was the night in which Jesus was about to be betrayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Our Lord was talking about his coming death and resurrection.  In a little while he would die on the cross.  He would be buried and the disciples would see him no more.  But then, a little while later, on the third day he would rise from the dead and they would see him again.  Jesus’ opponents would rejoice at his death and the disciples would experience crushing disappointment.  Yet on Easter their sorrow would turn into joy – like the joy of a woman after she has gone through the pain of labor and has given birth to her child.
            This would change everything.  Thus far, Jesus had spoken in figures of speech – he had spoken indirectly.  But things would be different after the resurrection.  Jesus told them, “I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech but will tell you plainly about the Father.”
            The disciples had not truly understood who Jesus was and what he had come to do for them.  Jesus said, “Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” They had not asked in Jesus’ name, because they did not fully understand who Jesus was in relation to God, and who he was in relation to them.  However the resurrection would change that.  As he spoke about that day Jesus added, “For the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.”
            In our text, Jesus says that this new understanding will occur after the resurrection.  However, after hearing Jesus words the disciples immediately say, “Ah, now you are speaking plainly and not using figurative speech! Now we know that you know all things and do not need anyone to question you; this is why we believe that you came from God.”
            The disciples confidently assert this. Yet immediately after our text our Lord tells them, “Do you now believe? Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone.”  Jesus tells them that they don’t understand, and very shortly their actions will prove it.  It is in fact only after Jesus death and resurrection that all will become clear.
            We are, of course, in the season of Easter as we continue to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And so Jesus’ words raise the question: Do you understand?  Do you understand what the resurrection of Jesus Christ means for you?
            Earlier Jesus said, “Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.”  Do you understand the comfort of knowing that because Jesus lives, you also will live eternal life with him and the Father?  Do you understand that the burden of sin has been lifted for all who believe in Jesus Christ?  As John the Baptist announced when he saw Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”  Do you understand the peace that is now yours because Jesus is the crucified and risen Lord?  Just after our text Jesus says, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
            These are things that are true for you.  And so that you may now that they are true for you, Jesus has given gifts – gifts that now in this Easter season we hear in John’s Gospel plainly and not in figures of speech.
            Right at the beginning of the Gospel we learn that Jesus is going to say things that won’t be understood until after the resurrection.  In chapter two our Lord cleanses the temple in Jerusalem.  The Jews ask him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus answered, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” Those hearing this don’t understand, because it had taken forty six years to build the temple and it was even fully done yet. And then John adds, “But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”
            Jesus says things that don’t become clear until after his resurrection.  Thus in chapter three after telling Nicodemus that a person must be born again in order to see the kingdom of God, he goes on to say, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
            After his resurrection Jesus instituted Holy Baptism through which these words are fulfilled.  Because you have received the washing of water with the Word, you have been born again.  You know for sure that you are a child of God and that you will enjoy the fullness of God’s reign when Christ returns on the Last Day.
            In a similar manner, Jesus says in chapter 6, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.”   The Jews hearing him are offended and many leave.  But after the resurrection we understand that at the last supper our Lord instituted the Sacrament of the Altar through which he gives his true body and blood.  He gives his true body and blood into your mouth, and so leaves no doubt that you have eternal life; that he will raise you up on the Last Day.
            Because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, you know that our Lord has done this for you.  Yet our Lord’s doing doesn’t stop with you.  If you understand how the resurrection of Jesus has changed everything then it cannot be otherwise than that you will share this love with others.       A little earlier our Lord said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
            The forgiveness, life and love we have received from Christ the risen Lord prompts us through the work of the Spirit to share in actions of sacrificial love.  If we understand what the resurrection means and that Christ has called us, it moves us to bear the fruit of love and support towards others.   Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”