Thursday, May 21, 2015

Commemoration of Emperor Constantine, Christian Ruler and Helena, Mother of Constantine

Today we remember and given thanks for Emperor Constantine, Christian Ruler and Helena, Mother of Constantine.  Constantine I served as Roman Emperor from A.D. 306 to 337. During his reign the persecution of Christians was forbidden by the Edict of Milan in 313, and ultimately the faith gained full imperial support. Constantine took an active interest in the life and teachings of the church and called the Council of Nicaea in 325 at which orthodox Christianity was defined and defended. His mother, Helena (ca. 255-329), strongly influenced Constantine. Her great interest in locating the holy sites of the Christian faith led her to become one of the first Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. Her research led to the identification of Biblical locations in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and beyond, which are still maintained as places of worship today.

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, through your servant Constantine, your Church flourished, and by his mother, Helena, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem became a holy place for many pilgrims.  Grant to us this same zeal for your Church and charity toward your people, that we may be fruitful in good works and steadfast in faith.  Keep us ever grateful for your abundant provision, with our eyes fixed, as Helena’s were, on the highest and greatest treasure of all, the cross of Christ; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Mark's thoughts: The evils of family and the local congregation

St. Augustine famously argued that evil is a privation of the good.  God is the Creator and what he creates is good.  All that the devil and sin can do is corrupt what is good (Enchiridion, chapters 11-13).  As a liar and murderer, it is not surprising that the devil seeks to corrupt some of the greatest goods in God’s creation.  He takes a great good and through sin turns it into an evil. 

Man was created in God’s image – man was created as male and female (Gen 1:26-27).  In that ordering as male and female, man reflected the unity and plurality of the Triune God. The union of male and female in sexual intercourse bound the two as the one flesh of marriage (Gen 2:24) and produced life as the fruit of that union just as God desired (Gen 1:28). 

Sexuality is intrinsically part of God’s gift of human life.  And so it is that from the beginning the devil has used lust to pervert this good and turn it into an evil in the lives of people.  In our own day the devil works both old and new versions of evil.  The “sexual revolution” has freed sex from marriage in ways that are the same as the first century A.D. world. And yet the view that homosexuality is perfectly normal and acceptable would have surprised the ancient world.  The notion that two people of the same sex can be “married,” or that a man is really a woman or vice versa, would have struck the ancient world as absurd.

It is easy to spot how the good of sexuality is perverted into an evil and an idol.  But there are other goods – tremendous gifts – where the same thing happens.  In fact the devil creates some of the most powerful idols in the most surprising places.

Family is a great gift of God. The product of marriage which was instituted in the Garden of Eden, this is the location where people take their place in the ordering God provides as they fulfill the vocation of husband and wife; father and mother; son and daughter.  These unique bonds of blood join people in ways that call forth love, service and obedience.

And yet the devil takes this great good and twists it into a great evil.  He twists it into one of the most powerful idols you will encounter.  Martin Luther writes in the Large Catechism: “For these two belong together, faith and God.  Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God” (1.3).  Whoever or whatever holds the number one place in our life is really our god.  All too often, family takes on this role.  It becomes the thing that is valued over God and his Word.

Jesus Christ said:

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:34-39 ESV)

This good becomes an evil – it becomes an idol - when a parent rejects the ministry of the pastor who seeks to speak the truth of God’s word to the son or daughter who is living together outside of marriage.  It becomes an idol when parents of a son or daughter who is practicing homosexuality reject a church and the teaching confessed there because the church calls homosexuality what it is – sin.  It becomes an idol when family members reject a pastor and his ministry because he will not permit division to be introduced to the sacrament of unity by allowing those of a different confessional fellowship to commune.

These actions prompted by the false idol of family take place in the local congregation.  Yet the local congregation – the local church – is also a great good that the devil turns into a great evil.  The congregation is the place where, as the Means of Grace are administered in the midst of people, the Church is present.  It is the place where the saving reign of God is present as faith is created and sustained, and forgiveness is delivered. 

Yet the devil takes this great good and perverts it.  He turns it into a great idol. The congregation becomes “my congregation” and “our congregation” in a way that distinguishes and opposes it to others.  The Gospel mission is given lip service, but other people – especially people who are different in some way – are not really welcome or wanted.  The local congregation becomes an idol when decisions are based on preserving the institution.  All things are sacrificed at the altar of keeping the congregation going in the way members want.  Fidelity to God’s Word and the pastor who serves in the Office of the Holy Ministry become mere obstructions to be ignored, or ultimately, to be eliminated. When people say, “My family has been in this congregation for one hundred years.”; when people say, “We were here before you and we will be here after you...,” they are often serving their idol – the congregation.

All people fail to fear, love and trust in God above all things as we break the First Commandment.  Yet it is important for pastors to recognize these two evils that they uniquely encounter in their service in the Church.  The manner in which they produce hardship can be disorienting because they are good gifts of God.  The fact that they cause harm to the pastor and others in the congregation itself can challenge faith because the congregation is the place where new pastors don’t expect such threats.  Yet upon reflection we find that it is not surprising that the devil seeks to create evil using these good things.  After all, that is what he does.  And so sustained by Christ’s gifts we meet these evils with faith and forgiveness as we pray: “Come, Lord Jesus!”    


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sermon for Seventh Sunday of Easter - Exaudi 1 Pet. 4:7-11

                                                                                                            Easter 7
                                                                                                            1 Pt. 4:7-11

            We all know people who operate on their own time.  You can tell them to be at your house at 7:00 p.m., but you know that really means that they will be there around 7:30 p.m.  You can assume that they will be late to everything because that’s just the way they do things. They seem to be incapable of being somewhere on time – (and whatever names are going through your head right now, just be careful not to say them out loud).
            If you are punctual, this can drive you crazy.  I am certainly included in that category.  I was raised by parents who made sure we were on time, and they taught me that this is how you do things.  I learned that it is disrespectful of other people to make them wait, and so we need to do everything we can be punctual – to be on time.
            I guess this is part of the reason that I am a person who wants to know what time it is.  I like to know where I am in the day: How long is it until lunch? How long is it until I have to pick up the kids from school?  How long is it until I have to stop working on the model railroad and go to bed?
            I want to know what time it is.  My parents gave me a nice watch as gift when I graduated from high school, and so ever since my college years I have always worn a wrist watch. After all these years, it is second nature to glance down at it.  There are few little things in life that irk me more than when the battery in my watch dies.  When I can’t look briefly at my watch and know what time it is, it throws my whole world a little out of whack.
            In the epistle lesson for today, Peter provides instruction for Christians about how they are to live.  And he says that the reason we need to live this way is because of what time it is.  Peter’s reasoning was true when he wrote this epistle.  It is still true today and the events of our world are providing a reminder of this fact.
            It is kind of hard to miss the perspective from which Peter speaks in our text this morning.  After all, it begins with the words, “The end of all things is at hand.”  Peter writes in expectation of the return of Jesus Christ.  Two verses earlier he talked about how people “will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.”  Two verses after our text he says that Christians will rejoice and be glad when Christ’s glory is revealed.
            This perspective provides the framework for everything that Peters says.  And in fact he explicitly draws a conclusion from it when he says in our text,” “therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.”  Because it is the time when the end of all things is at hand, Peter says, “be serious, keep your head.”
            The apostle says this because as he describes this time in which we live – this time in which the end of things is at hand – he wants us to know that it is a time when we will probably suffer.  He says this because in a fallen world, that is just sometimes what happens.  Sometimes things happen that are unfair and just plain wrong.  Sometimes God allows these things to come our way. 
            And more specifically in this section Peter talks about the fact that being a Christian may bring suffering – it may bring hardship.  Peter notes that Christians will live in ways that are different from the world.  Just before our text he writes, “For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you.”  Reject the ways of the world, and the world will let you know it is not happy about this.
            Immediately after our text Peter goes on to say, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”  Peter, like the apostle Paul, says that we share in Christ’s sufferings – we suffer because we are Christians.  But he goes on to say, “
If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you. But let none of you suffer as a murderer or a thief or an evildoer or as a meddler. Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name.”
            This reflection on life in the time when the end of all things is at hand is a good one for today.  Today in Confirmation we acknowledge that these young people have received a level of knowledge about the faith that we expect of our adult congregation members. 
            The reality is that the world we live in now is one that I could not have possibly imagined when I was confirmed in the early 1980’s.  Much of this revolves around issues of the Sixth Commandment.  “Friends with benefits,” living together outside of marriage, the acceptance of homosexuality, the legal recognition of same sex “marriage”  - all of these now define the world in which we live.  And in particular, when it comes to homosexuality our culture has now made it clear that no one will be allowed to speak out against it.  There are no protections – no freedom of religion – that can shield you.
            And then there are just basic issues concerning the authority of God’s Word.  Basics issues about right and wrong – whether such things exist.  You have learned that Scripture is the inspired and authoritative Word of God.  You have learned about doctrine that is true and doctrine that is false. The world says that the Bible is just a book written by guys who lived forever ago.  We now know better than they did and so we have to pick and choose the parts that are true.  It says that there is no such thing as true or false doctrine – there is just whatever is true for you and what is true for me.
            This is the temptation the confirmands and every one of us faces.  It is not something that is going away.  Instead, there will be more and more occasions when we will be called to join ourselves to the suffering of Christ. And honestly, we want to find every way we can to avoid that suffering.  We want a Christianity that comforts us, not one that brings challenges.  We want a hot tub, not a cross.
            Why would we ever choose to suffer with Christ?  Peter says it is because Christ has already suffered for us.  He writes, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”  Jesus suffered and died on the cross in order to take away our sin that separated us from God.  As the risen Lord he has given us the gift of Holy Baptism through which he applies that forgiveness to us and gives us the assurance of salvation and eternal life.  As Peter says at the end of chapter three, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.”
            Jesus Christ has shown this saving love toward us.  And as we celebrated on Thursday, he has ascended and been exalted at the right hand of God.  He has told us to be ready because he will return at a time and an hour we do not expect.  We need to be ready because by his life, death and resurrection he has begun the last days.  As Peter says in our text, “The end of all things is at hand.”
            What does this mean for us right now?  How do we live as people who know what Jesus Christ had done and what it means?  Peter doesn’t want us to miss this, for he says, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.”  The love we have received in Jesus Christ prompts us to love one another.  In Christ we have the source of love that can never be exhausted.  And it is love that covers a multitude of sins.  It conceals the neighbor’s wrongs and weaknesses as it protects and defends the neighbor.  It soothes over instead of riling up because it does not dwell on sin. 
            And finally Peter says that those who know the end of all things is at hand because of Christ will use the gifts God has given to them in order to serve one another.  He writes, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.”  The gifts that God has given allow us to become instruments that he uses in order to serve and help those around us.
            In our text this morning, Peter emphasizes what time it is – it is the time when the end of all things is at hand.  He writes because Christ loved us and suffered for us in order take away our sins.  He writes because God has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  Jesus has begun the resurrection of the Last Day.  He has ascended into heaven amidst the promise that he will return. 
            This is the time in which we live and so Peter tells us to be self controlled and sober minded for the sake of our prayers – he tells us to keep our head and turn to God in prayer.  He tells us to love one another earnestly since love covers a multitude of sins. And he tells us that as we have received gifts from God we are to use them to serve one another as good stewards of God’s varied grace.  


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord - Acts 1:1-11

                                                                                                Acts 1:1-11

            The monarchy in England is a remarkable anachronism.   Those who are part of the monarchy have massive wealth and live a life of incredible privilege.  And yet they have no real political power.  They are treated as celebrities in England and in the United States, and yet they can’t really do anything.  They are mere figureheads – symbols that somehow represent continuity with the past in a present that has passed them by.
            Perhaps no one better summarizes the position occupied by the English monarchy than Prince Charles.  The son of Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles is the heir to the English throne. This is a position that he has held now for … sixty seven years. Queen Elizabeth is eighty nine years old.  This means that for his entire life, Prince Charles hasn’t just been a figurehead.  He has been a figurehead in waiting.  It isn’t just that he has been a symbol with no power.  He has spent his whole life waiting to become a symbol with no power.
            Charles had a very brief career in the Royal Navy from 1971 to 1976. Since leaving the navy his life’s work has been one of various charitable groups and arts organizations.  He has promoted organic farming and pursued his love of polo.  To be honest, the only thing he is really known for - apart from the fact that he is a prince – is that he was married to Lady Diana.  In a marriage of two very ill suited individuals he was completely eclipsed by his wife.
            Prince Charles hasn’t really done anything.  He has spent his whole life waiting.  Most likely sometime in the next ten years, when he is in his seventies, he will take his place on the English throne.  And when he finally does so he will have no power.
            Today is the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord.  This day is about an enthronement.  It is the day when we rejoice in the fact that Jesus Christ ascended into heaven and was seated at the right hand of God the Father.  Yet unlike what will be the case for Prince Charles, this did not take place after a career of doing nothing but waiting.  And unlike the English monarchy, he did not take his place in a position – in a status – with no power.
            This evening our text briefly summarizes what happened during the forty days between Easter and Jesus’ ascension. We learn that our Lord presented himself alive to his followers by many proofs, appearing to them during the course of those forty days.  It is easy to move on into the weeks after Easter and forget about this fact.  The risen Lord didn’t just appear to the women on Easter morning.  He didn’t just appear to the disciples in Jerusalem on the evening of Easter.  Instead they saw him on multiple occasions in multiple places.  They saw him Jerusalem and in the north in Galilee.  He left absolutely no doubt that he had risen from the dead.
            We learn in our text that during this time he taught them about the kingdom of God.  He taught them about how he had fulfilled God’s promises and how he had brought God’s saving reign by bringing forgiveness from sins and defeating death. And he promised them that there was more yet to happen.  Our Lord told them to remain in Jerusalem and 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.”
            Forty days after Easter when they had come together, the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”  Now we often hear these words as if the disciples were completely clueless about Jesus and his work.  But actually their question is framed by the Old Testament promises. And in fact, Jesus doesn’t correct the content of what they have said. Instead, he clarifies the timing as he says, “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.”
            Jesus was going to restore the kingdom to Israel.  But he was going to do it in a different way than they expected, because Israel was going to be bigger than they expected.  Jesus had carried out the saving work to make this possible, and now he was going to be exalted in order to set it into motion.
            We learn that as they were looking on, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went 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.”
            In the ascension, Jesus is glorified and exalted as he takes his place at the right hand of the throne of God.  Unlike Prince Charles who hasn’t really accomplished anything, Jesus Christ was enthroned after carrying out the Father’s saving plan.  It was necessary for him to suffer and die on the cross for our sins and then to rise from the dead.  As Jesus said to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”  It had been necessary, and Jesus had done it.  Because of his saving death on the cross and resurrection from the dead you have forgiveness.
            But the glorification of Jesus involved more than just resurrection.  It involved the withdrawal of his visible presence as he was enthroned at the right hand of God – as he took on a status and function befitting the King of kings.  On the day of Pentecost Peter said, “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.”
            The angel Gabriel had said to Mary about the son she would conceive, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  Now, God the Father had done this, but in a way that went beyond anything Mary could have imagined.  As Peter said on Pentecost, “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.”
            Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven and has been exalted to the right hand of God the Father.  Your Lord has been glorified because of his saving work.  And part of that exaltation is the fact that he is the now the giver of the Spirit of God.  In ten days we will celebrate this fact at the Feast of Pentecost.  Jesus has poured forth the Holy Spirit to apply and extend his saving work to all people. He has done this to create an Israel of God that fills the whole world – an Israel of God that includes you.
            Our reaction to all of this is that we don’t really want the ascension.  We don’t want Jesus to be absent from our perception.  And we don’t want to wait for Jesus, who was taken up from us into heaven and will come in the same way as he went into heaven.
            Yet to think in this way is to ignore what the ascension means for Jesus.  It is the culminating event of his saving work.  It is the event in which God the Father exalts him as the One who successfully carried out his will.  And it is the event in which Jesus takes on the mighty role of sending the Spirit.
            And because the ascension is about Jesus, it is also about you.  Jesus is exalted as the One who carried out the Father’s will to save you.  He takes on the mighty role of sending forth the Spirit in order to create and sustain faith within you. 
            That is what Jesus is doing right now as the ascended and exalted Lord.  This brings us comfort in the present.  And yet at the same time the angels’ words at the ascension also give hope for the future.  The One who ascended will return. The One who really rose from the dead, really ascended. And the One who really ascended, really will return. 
            Jesus will come again.  And the ascension of the risen Lord teaches us that when this happens, everything will be different.  He will come, not as the incarnate One who can be killed, but as the immortal Second Adam who comes to share this immortal bodily existence with us.  He will come, not as the humble baby in the manger, but as the exalted Lord who rules with divine power.
He will give us a share in his resurrection and renew this creation so that it is very good once again.  He will give us a future that only he can provide – a future that is worth waiting for.