Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Mark's thoughts: The double meaning of "Thy kingdom come"

One of the challenges of using the Lord’s Prayer is that its petitions are so dense. The seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are all brief statements that flow easily, one after another.  Years of use make the cadence and rhythm of the petitions second nature.  Yet each of those petitions contains a treasure of theological meaning and in our use of the Lord’s Prayer this is easy to overlook.

The Second Petition, “Thy kingdom come,” provides an excellent illustration of this.  Our Lord teaches us to pray for the arrival of the kingdom of God.  While the word “kingdom” makes us think of a place like the kingdom England or France, in the Scriptures the word “kingdom” instead refers to an activity.   Coming out of its Old Testament background, the phrase “the kingdom of God” refers to the reign or rule of God.  As Psalm 97:1 states, “The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice; let the many islands be glad.”  The phrase refers to God’s activity, and not a place, as He cares for His people and opposes sin and evil in the world. 

Jesus teaches His disciples to pray for the future arrival of God’s reign – His kingdom.  He teaches them to pray for the Last Day.  We now know that this Last Day will take place when the risen and ascended Lord returns in glory.  Yet Jesus teaches the disciples to pray in this fashion as He is with them.  This fact leads us to recognize that the coming of God’s kingdom does not happen in only one way or time.

Jesus began His ministry by saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has arrived; repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). During this ministry he announced, “But if I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28).  Jesus declared that in His person and ministry God’s reign – his kingdom  - was present to turn back Satan, sin and death.  During His earthly ministry, Jesus was the presence of God’s reign as He forgave sins, healed diseases and cast out demons.  Jesus carried out the most important act of God’s reign when He died on the cross and rose from the dead.  

Jesus spoke of God's kingdom as something that was both present and future.  The same thing is true in our day.  Martin Luther wrote in the Large Catechism, "The coming of God's kingdom to us takes place in two ways: first, it comes here in time, through Word and faith, and second, in eternity, it comes through the final revelation (III.53).  Just as the earthly ministry of Jesus was the presence of God's reign in the first century A.D., so also God's reign continues in our day as the Holy Spirit works through the Means of Grace to create and sustain faith in Jesus Christ.  Through this work He frees and protects us from Satan and sin.  Luther focused on this aspect of the kingdom of God when he wrote in the Small Catechism: "How does God's kingdom come?  God's kingdom comes when our heavenly Father gives us His Holy Spirit, so that by His grace we believe His holy Word and lead godly lives here in time and there in eternity."
We recognize that God’s reign comes by itself without our prayers.  However we pray in this petition that God’s reign would come to us.  We pray that the Holy Spirit would continue to use the Means of Grace to strengthen us in the faith, for by faith in Jesus Christ we have been redeemed (freed) from the power of the devil and Jesus has become our Lord.  At the same time, we pray that God’s reign will come in all its completeness.  When we pray “Thy kingdom come,” we are praying for the return of Jesus Christ and the arrival of the Last Day when God’s reign will do away with sin and death forever.   We are saying, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20).

In the Divine Service, the Lord’s Prayer is spoken in conjunction with the Words of Institution and the distribution of the Sacrament of the Altar.  From ancient times in the Church’s practice the Lord’s Prayer has been used in association with the Sacrament of the Altar.  Several petitions in the Lord’s Prayer have always caused the Church to think about the Sacrament.  It is appropriate that we pray “Thy kingdom come,” just before reception of the Christ’s body and blood because God’s reign comes to us in the Sacrament as we receive the forgiveness of sins and as the Holy Spirit strengthens us in the faith.  At the same time, it is also fitting to pray “Thy kingdom come” because the coming of Christ in His body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar points us forward to the coming of Christ on the Last Day when He will return in glory.  As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 11:26 about the Lord’s Supper, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” The unique character of the Sacrament of the Altar serves as a reminder that to pray “Thy kingdom come” is to ask for God’s saving action now and also in the future.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity - Lk 17:11-19

                                                                                               Trinity 14
                                                                                                Lk 17:11-19


Something rather odd has happened last Sunday and today. Last Sunday in the Gospel lesson we heard Jesus tell the parable about the good Samaritan. Today in the Gospel lesson we hear about the thankful Samaritan. Two weeks in a row the Gospel lessons have described a Samaritan in a very positive way.

Now this is odd for a couple of reasons. First, the Samaritans are only mentioned in seven places in the entire New Testament – and in these two weeks we have heard two of them. And second, both texts describe the Samaritans in very positive ways. That only happens in four places in the entire New Testament. And yet, on back to back Sundays in the Gospel lesson we have heard half of those. 

This is not what we should expect. And it certainly could skew our perception of the Samaritans and how they related to the Jews at the time of Christ. From a historical perspective we would be better served if we heard Jesus instructions to the apostles in Matthew chapter 10: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” We need to hear the Jews say to Jesus in John chapter 8: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” We need to hear about how in Luke chapter 9 a Samaritan village refuses to receive Jesus and the disciples because they are Jews travelling to Jerusalem.

The Jews and the Samaritans despised each other. And in part this was because they shared so much in common. The Samaritans descended from the foreigners that the Assyrians had brought into northern Israel in the eighth century B.C. when they conquered the northern kingdom and took the people away into exile.

The Samaritans ended up creating a strange form of Judaism. They adopted the first five books of the Old Testament which are often called the Pentateuch – Greek for “five books.” However, they built their own temple on Mt. Gerizim in Samaria and changed the text of the Scriptures in ways that focused on Mt Gerizim. They created what is now known as the Samaritan Pentateuch.

In many ways, the Samaritans lived like Jews. Because they shared so much of the Mosaic law, their manner of life looked Jewish – and even Jews recognized this. But on the other hand they had their own temple on Mt Gerizim and didn’t worship at the temple in Jerusalem. And Jews knew for sure that the Samaritans weren’t Jewish.

In the second century B.C. when the Jews had gained freedom the Seleucids they conquered Samaria and destroyed the temple on Mt Gerizim. This cemented and guaranteed ongoing antagonism. Once the Romans arrived, the Jews and the Samaritans tried to play the Romans off against each other. The Samaritans never forgot what the Jews had done to the temple on Mt Gerizim. In fact on one occasion in the first century A.D. Samaritans slipped onto the temple grounds in Jerusalem and strewed human bones around the area in order to defile it!

We should not expect to hear anything good about a Samaritan. We should not expect a Samaritan to do anything good to a Jew. We should not expect Jews and Samaritans to have anything to do with each other.

When the Jews conquered Samaria in the second century B.C., they also conquered the area of Galilee which is north of Samaria. Galilee at the time was not Jewish, but the Jewish leaders forced the area to become Jewish. And ironically, by the first century A.D., Galilee was a very pious Jewish area. It was, after all, the home of Mary and Joseph. However, Samaria was south of Galilee, and this meant that in order to get to Jerusalem in the south, Jewish pilgrims from Galilee had to go around and skirt the border of Samaria instead of heading directly south.

In the Gospel lesson this morning we find Jesus and his disciples making this trip to Jerusalem for the Passover. They were making their way on the border of Galilee and Samaria when they approached a village. As they did so they were met by ten lepers, who stood at a distance and lifted up their voices, saying, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”
This statement is remarkable for two reasons. First, you are familiar with the phrase “Lord have mercy” from the Kyrie of the liturgy. It is a cry for help. Yet this is the only time in the New Testament when this cry is addressed to Jesus by name. And second, this is the only time in the New Testament when a person who is not one of the twelve disciples calls Jesus “master.” Clearly, these men had faith in Jesus.

They were asking for help, and the help they needed was obvious. Biblical leprosy included a range of skin conditions. The important thing is that the Torah declared that such a skin condition rendered a people ritually unclean. They couldn’t enter the temple to worship. Mere contact with others made those individuals unclean – a condition that required a lengthy and involved process to reverse. Lepers couldn’t live in a village. They lived outside it where family and friends could provide for them.

These ten lepers cried out in faith, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” Our Lord replied, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” Jesus sent the lepers to the priests in Jerusalem because they were the ones who could certify that a person was clean. But the thing we can’t miss here is that Jesus’ words were spoken to men who were still lepers. The lepers set out to Jerusalem because of Jesus word; because of faith in Jesus’ word. And then we learn that, “as they went they were cleansed.” It was as they travelled to Jerusalem in faith that they received healing.

Jesus healed the lepers. This was an action that showed how Jesus was bringing God’s reign to uproot Satan, sin and death. When John the Baptist was in prison he sent words to Jesus and asked, “Are you the coming one, or should be look for another.” Jesus responded with the words of Isaiah by saying, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Jesus came to free us from sin, and he was about to do it in an unexpected way – a way that could cause offense. Our text begin with the words, “on the way to Jerusalem.” In chapter nine Jesus says to the disciples, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” And then later in that chapter we are told, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to die for you. He goes there to win forgiveness of sin for you by dying on the cross. He goes there to defeat death by rising from the dead on the third day. Through his word and baptism Jesus has called you to faith in him and his saving work for you. Because of Jesus you are forgiven. You are a child of God. You have the assurance of eternal life.

The ten lepers who were told to go to Jerusalem and show themselves to the priest went in faith, even though they had not received healing yet. Like the lepers, you too are called to go in faith, even though you have not yet received the complete fullness of salvation – even though you still struggle against sin and all of the hardships of this world. 

But it is Jesus the crucified and risen Lord who calls you to walk in faith. Because of Jesus’ cross and resurrection you already now have forgiveness and salvation. And because of Jesus’ resurrection you have the certainty of knowing that you will receive resurrection life in the new creation.

The lepers left for Jerusalem believing in Jesus’ word, and as they went they were healed. We learn in our text that one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He fell on his face at Jesus' feet, giving him thanks.

And then we get a surprise as Luke tells us, “Now he was a Samaritan.” Jesus answered, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Nine others had been cleansed. Presumably, they had been Jewish. Yet the only one who returned to give thanks was the Samaritan.

Our text reminds us that it is easy to take our status for granted. If you have lived in the Church your whole life; if you have even been a Lutheran for a long time, you can begin to over look what you have. You can fail to give thanks for the blessing of forgiveness and the Means of Grace. You can start to over look them and use them less as you focus instead on other things. You can be slow to live a life of praise and thanks – a life that responds to Christ’s love by loving and serving others.

It’s not the Jews – God’s covenant people – who returned to give thanks to Jesus. It was the Samaritan. In this event we see foreshadowed the movement of the Gospel in Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts. For it is in Samaria that the Gospel will first be proclaimed and believed outside of Judaism. And then the Gospel will move on to pagan Gentiles, even as many Jews reject faith in Jesus.

A person is not saved because their parents were faithful Lutherans. A person is not saved because their name is on a church roster somewhere. A person is saved because of a living faith in Jesus Christ. Such a faith clings to the Means of Grace and regularly receives them. Such a faith responds in praise and thanksgiving to God. This happens in prayer. It happens in worship – in fact in a few moments we will do this in the Service of the Sacrament. It happens in acts of loving service directed toward others. This is the faith we see in the Samaritan this morning. We are called to live daily in this faith because as we do we have the assurance that Jesus’ words apply to us when he says, “Rise and go your way; your faith has saved you.”

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Feast of St. Bartholomew, Apostle

Today is the Feast of  St. Bartholomew, Apostle.  Bartholomew was one of twelve apostles chosen by Christ (Matthew 10:1-4).  Most likely he is called Nathaniel in the Gospel of John (John 1:45-51).  If this identification is accurate, then his personal name was Nathaniel and Bartholomew is an Aramaic patronymic (i.e. identifying the person as the son of someone: “the son of Tholomaeus” or the like).  Nathaniel was from Cana and was present with six other disciples when the risen Lord appeared by the Sea of Galilee and hosted a breakfast for them (John 21:1-14).  According to some Early Church Fathers, Bartholomew brought the Gospel to Armenia, where he was martyred by being flayed alive.

Scripture reading:
 The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael said to him, “How do you know me?” Jesus answered him, “Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.” Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”   John 1:43-51

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, your Son, Jesus Christ, chose Bartholomew to be an apostle to preach the blessed Gospel.  Grant that Your Church may love what he believed and preach what he taught; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity - Gal 3:15-22

                                                                                                     Trinity 13
                                                                                                      Gal 3:15-22

In a recent blog post Julie Garber wrote: “As an estate planning attorney I used to receive a call at least once a month from a potential client who wanted to contest the validity of a loved one's will, and at least once a month I had to explain the four legal reasons for challenging a will, how difficult it is to prove any one of them, and how costly it would be to proceed.”

She goes on to describe the four legal grounds for contesting the validity of a will. The first is that a will most be signed in accordance with the applicable state laws. Garber says that “failing to sign a will in accordance with applicable state laws is the first and foremost reason why a will is contested and also the most common reason why a will is found to be invalid.”

The second is that the individual lacked the testamentary capacity to the make the will. Testamentary capacity involves an understanding of the nature and value of the assests; the people who will inherit them; and the legal effect of signing the will. Garber notes that “the testimony of the witnesses to the will signing becomes crucial, and absent a doctor's visit or an adjudication of incapacity within days of the will signing, lack of testamentary capacity is difficult to prove.”

The third reason is that the individual was unduly influenced into signing a will. But Garber adds that like a lack of testamentary capacity, undue influence is difficult to prove. And fourth reason is that the will was obtained through fraud – that the person was tricked into signing it. Obviously when the person is dead, they can’t be questioned about what they thought they were signing. Again witnesses are the only source of information and the only hope for overturning a will is if for some reason their stories don’t add up.

It’s apparent that invalidating a will is quite difficult to do. And there’s a reason for this. A will is a person’s final wishes about what is to be done with the things they have acquired during their life. It’s their stuff, and so they have a right to decide what happens to it when they are gone. Since the will goes into effect when the person has died and can’t express their wishes anymore, the legal system assumes that a will describes what is to be done. The burden of proof is on anyone who wants to contest the will, and the demands for proof are very high.

With very few exceptions, you don’t invalidate wills or make changes to them after the person has died. In the epistle lesson this morning, the apostle Paul uses this fact to help the Galatians understand that God has never changed the manner in which he gives salvation to all people. It has always been based on God’s promise that is received in faith, and not because of things we do. And he emphasizes that not even the giving of the Law at Mt Sinai changed this basic fact.

St. Paul had founded the Galatian church on his first missionary journey in south central Asia Minor – modern day Turkey. However, at some point after he had left, other Christian teachers had come to Galatia. These Christians were trying to convince the Galatians that Paul had not told them the whole story.

The Galatians were Gentiles – they were not Jewish. Paul had told them that they were saved through faith in Jesus Christ and that they did not have to do the things required of Jews in the Torah in order to be saved. But these other teachers told the Galatians that if they really wanted to be part of God’s people, they did have to do the law of Moses – or at least certain parts of it. They had to be circumcised, follow the Jewish food laws and observe Jewish religious days and occasions.

To be clear, these teachers weren’t saying that a person earned salvation on their own by doing these things. They certainly believed in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But they were saying that a Christian had to do something in addition to Jesus in order to be part of God’s people and receive salvation. To Paul, this was nothing other than a rejection of the Gospel. He began this letter by saying, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.”

To Paul, the idea that a person’s actions were part of the reason they were saved was a perversion of the Gospel. In this chapter he is arguing that a person is not saved by works of the law, but instead by faith in Jesus alone. This is in fact what God had said from the beginning. Earlier in this chapter Paul says, “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” God had reckoned Abraham as righteous by faith. In Abraham God showed that faith was the means by which all people would be saved. And God had promised that in Abraham’s offspring all nations would be blessed.

Salvation was going to be given by faith in Jesus, and not by doing something – not even if it was just a part of the equation. The reason for this is simple. Paul says before our text, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’” The Law is about doing. It’s not about faith. Paul adds, “But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.’” 

The apostle says that when you do things in the way of the law, you have to go all the way. The law offers life – if you can do it. Yet throughout this whole discussion Paul is operating with an assumption that you know well. Paul assumes that people can’t do the law. It’s not just that we don’t. Instead we are completely unable. Paul says in our text, “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”

God’s Word has declared what our true situation is. We are trapped by sin. It poisons our thoughts; our words; our deeds. It has infected everything so that even when we do good things, they are rarely pure. Instead, we have ulterior motives that are often self-serving in some way. We are not motivated only by love of God and love of our neighbor.

Yet the good news of the Gospel is that salvation was never about doing. By his grace, God had promised it as a gift – a gift received by faith. God had spoken the promise to Abraham. And this fact was not changed by the Law that God later gave at Mt Sinai. Paul uses the example of a will to illustrate this. He says in our text, “To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made testament, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a testament previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.”

What Paul described as good news for the Galatians is still good news for you. We may no longer be bound by the law in the specific form given to Israel. But the Law – the ordering of how God’s creation is to work – determines how life is to work for us. And transgression of that Law still brings the curse of God’s judgment.

The good news – the Gospel – is that Christ stepped into our place. Pauls says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.”

God had promised that in Abraham’s offspring – in his seed – all nations would be blessed. Paul tells us that Jesus Christ is this seed. It is Jesus - crucified and buried, and then raised from the dead on the third day. Jesus is the One who has fulfilled God’s promise. And now, through baptism and faith God has included you as well.

At the end of this chapter Paul says, “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” You are the offspring of Abraham because through baptism you have been joined to Christ – you are “in Christ” as Paul like to phrase it. As the apostle goes on to say, “And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.”

You have received forgiveness and salvation not because you have done anything. Instead, you have received it through faith in the promise; through faith in Jesus Christ. And because your salvation is based on what Christ has done it is certain and sure. There is no doubt.