Sunday, February 24, 2019

Sermon for the Feast of St. Matthias

                                                                                    St. Matthias
                                                                                    Acts 1:15-26

            “He was a really good athlete. In fact, he was an alternate on the 2008 U.S. Olympic track and field team.”  What thoughts come to mind when you hear this statement?  For me, the first thing is that this person obviously was a really good athlete.  Absolutely he was a star in high school.  Has was an all-state athlete, and he probably won multiple state championships.
            Certainly he had a scholarship to a power five school and competed in big time college athletics at the highest level.  He must have been all-conference and won conference championships.  Of course he competed in the NCAA Track and Field Championships, and it wouldn’t be surprising if somewhere in those college years he was national champion in an event.  If someone from our area did that, you would hear about him in the news all the time and his name would be very familiar to you.
            Those are the first things that would cross my mind.  But then, I would think something else.  It would occur to me that he was only an alternate.  He wasn’t really on the team because he didn’t compete in the Olympics.  You’ll notice that the statement wasn’t, “He was in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.”  He tried out for the team, but wasn’t actually good enough to make the team. If you are going to put in that much effort and compete at that level, and then you don’t achieve your goal … well, you failed. Great career.  Lots of memories. But there is a reason no one has the goal of being the alternate.
            Today we celebrate the Feast of St. Matthias, the “alternate apostle.”  The only things we know for sure about St. Matthias are what we find here in our text.  And it is impressive.  We learn that he was one of the men who was with the apostles in their time with Jesus beginning from the baptism of John until the day of our Lord’s ascension.  He was a witness of the risen Lord. As Jesus presented himself alive to his followers by many proofs, and appeared to them during forty days speaking about the kingdom of God, Matthias was there.
            Matthias was one of the hundred and twenty people gathered with the apostles after Jesus’ ascension.  While naturally we focus on the twelve apostles, the Gospels are clear in telling us that other people accompanied Jesus as well during his minstry. Luke tells us about women such as Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Susanna along with “many others” like them who provided for the group out of their means. There were seventy two men that Jesus sent ahead of him to heal and proclaim, “The kingdom of heaven has come near to you.”  Perhaps Matthias had been among them.
            Matthias had been in that group that was with Jesus from the very beginning – from his baptism by John the Baptist.  He had been there all the way right up to ascension of our Lord.  Yet Matthias had not been among the twelve apostles.  He had not been chosen by Jesus as one of his authorized representatives.  Immediately before our text Luke tells us, “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day's journey away. And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James.
            Now for those of you keeping score at home, there are only eleven names in that list – eleven names for the twelve apostles.  In fact our text deals specifically with this issue. Our Lord had chosen twelve apostles, a clear reference to the twelve tribes of Israel.  As the foundational leaders of the church, the number of the apostles – twelve – shows us that the Church is the Israel of God.  It is the continuation of the people of God.
            Jesus had chosen twelve apostles.  Now there were eleven.  For forty days the disciples had known the joy of seeing the risen Lord.  But now, Peter had to address the elephant in the room.  He said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”
            Jesus had chosen twelve apostles.  He hadn’t chosen Matthias.  Instead, he had chosen Judas.  Really, it should have been a huge embarrassment to the early Church.  One of Jesus’ handpicked inner circle had betrayed him and caused his death.  This certainly called into question Jesus’ judgment. 
            In April the NFL will have its annual draft.  Every year as the draft approaches there are stories about “draft busts” early first round choices that amounted to nothing and ended up being wasted picks.  If a general manager has a few of those, he loses his job. Well, Judas certainly counts as an all time “draft bust.”  Jesus had chosen him in the first round – after prayer and careful consideration he had chosen Judas to be among his twelve apostles.  It turns out that Jesus chose a traitor.
            The choice of Judas certainly calls into question Jesus’ judgment.  And while we are on that topic, it is not hard to look around and wonder if Jesus really knows what he is doing.  Why have so many members of this congregation been afflicted with cancer recently?  That doesn’t seem to make sense.  Why is the radical leading edge of abortion advancing, advocating infanticide as the media cheers it on.  That doesn’t seem to make sense.  Why is it becoming harder and harder to raise children in the Christian faith within this increasingly sick and twisted culture? That doesn’t seem to make sense.
            At times we are tempted to think, that maybe Jesus doesn’t know what he is doing.  Maybe he is making great “draft bust” decisions about the course of our own lives.  It’s not what we would choose.  It doesn’t make sense to us.  If Jesus chose Judas, what other mistakes is he making?
            Peter says in our text, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”  We learn that the choice of Judas was not would we are inclined to think.  It was not a mistake.  Instead, Judas was exactly the right choice.
            On multiple occasions Jesus predicted his passion – his suffering and death.  After his resurrection he 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?”  Suffering and death to win the forgiveness of sins for you was Jesus’ mission.  This was the saving mission the God the Father had given to Jesus the incarnate Son.  Judas’ role in this was to betray Jesus.  Our Lord’s choice of Judas was not a “draft bust.”
            We know this because in our text, there is the need to select an “alternate apostle.”  Betrayed by Judas, Jesus Christ had been crucified and died under Pontius Pilate. He had been buried in a sealed tomb. But as he had also predicted, on the third day he had risen from the dead. Over the course of forty days the disciples had just spent time with the risen Lord in different locations and with different groups of believers. There could be no doubt that the Lord who had been betrayed by Judas had risen from the dead.  After all, Jesus had offered, “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.”
            Jesus had now ascended.  He had told the believers not to leave the city until they have been baptized with the Holy Spirit.  He had said, “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.” There was work for God’s Israel, the Church to do.  And so there was need to complete the twelve again. Another apostle was needed.
            The criteria for selection were clear.  Peter says in our text, “So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us--one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”  Matthias becomes an apostle through the Lord’s choice because Jesus rose from the dead.  The choice of Matthias shows us that the choice of Judas was not a mistake.  Instead it was God at work to give us salvation. It was Jesus at work choosing to sacrifice himself to save you.
            Our Lord’s choice of Judas … and his choice of Matthias comforts us in the midst of his choices that we don’t understand.  We see that God has given us his love, forgiveness and salvation in ways we would not expect, through choices we would not have made.  Yet because this is so, should we really be surprised if the almighty God does this in other areas of life as well?
            And because we have seen the outcome that he worked through the betrayal, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, shouldn’t we trust him as we experience his choices in the present that we don’t understand? The answer is most certainly yes, because there was the need to choose an alternate apostle.  There was need because the crucified Lord has risen from the dead, and that fact now shapes the way we look at everything.


Sunday, February 17, 2019

Sermon for Septuagesima - 1 Cor 9:24-10:5

                                                                                                1 Cor 9:24-10:5

            Cory Booker, the Democratic Senator from New Jersey recently made news by announcing that he is seeking his party’s nomination for President in the 2020 election.  That’s news, but it really doesn’t make him unique because many politicians are going to be seeking that nomination in a crowded field.
            However, Booker is unique among the candidates in that he is a vegan.  In fact, if elected, he would be the first vegan President.  Booker recently made some news and drew a response because of an interview he did in VegNews. There he said that the world can’t sustain a move toward eating more meat. And while he was clear that he didn’t think people should be told what to eat, he argued that if they are given viable alternatives to meat and informed about the issues involved, more people will choose the vegetarian and vegan lifestyle and that would be a good thing.
            Not surprisingly, Booker’s comments drew a reaction. Ben Sasse, the Republican Senator from Nebraska commented: “Cory’s a good dude, but Tofurky is a crime against humanity.  Everybody needs real food to survive — if that food happens to be a juicy, perfectly cooked, medium rare steak from a cow raised here in Nebraska, count me in.”
            The history of the world indicates that Booker is probably going to be on the losing side of this argument.  The fact of the matter is that people have always wanted to eat meat.  When they have faced limitations in the amount of meat they could consume, it only has made them want it more.
            The eating of meat is actually the subject that prompted Paul’s words in our text this morning from his letter to the Corinthians.  The diet of the Mediterranean world in the first century included little meat.  The limitations of production in that area meant that it was just too expensive to eat on a regular basis.
            People ate little meat, and especially in cities like Corinth when they did it came from one source: animals sacrificed at pagan temples. Most of the meat from animals sacrificed was saved to be eaten.  This happened in a number of ways. The large temple complexes actually had dining rooms where the meat was served.  The meat not used there was sold to vendors who then sold it in the city.
            In chapters eight through ten of this letter, the apostle Paul is handling the question of how Christians should deal with meat sacrificed to idols. The real problem he had encountered was the way the Corinthians were approaching the Christian faith. First, they said that since they knew there is only one true God, it didn’t matter if this meat had been involved in pagan practices.  And second, the Corinthians believed that as Christians they already had salvation and so nothing could harm them.  They treated baptism and the Lord’s Supper as if they were a protection that allowed them to do what they wanted.
            Paul deals with several different aspects of this problem.  In the letter he has just been addressing the fact that the way one Christian acts can affect another.  He has cautioned, “Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”
            The sight of a Christian eating at a temple dining room could lead another Christian to do so – but for this Christian who was weak in understanding the result could be a loss of faith.  Paul says, “For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.”
            The apostle says that love for a fellow Christian must guide their actions.  When necessary, a Christian needs to put others first.  Paul has just described how he does this in his own life in order to share the Gospel.  He wrote, “For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.”  Paul had willingly become like those under the law, like those outside the law, and like the weak.  He says, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”
            But even after doing all of this, Paul knew that he was not free to do whatever he wanted.  In our text the apostle makes this point using the metaphors drawn from athletics.  He says, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.”
            Paul had done all of this work to share the Gospel with others.  But that didn’t mean he could just give in to what the old Adam wanted to do.  He knew all about this struggle and told the Galatians, “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.”
            In our text, Paul compares the Christian life to that of an athlete who must be disciplined in order to win. And then he goes on to warn the Corinthians that baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not magic protection.  He writes, “For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink.”
            Paul compares the sacraments to the miraculous experiences of Israel as she passed through the Red Sea, ate manna from heaven, and drank water from a rock.  They had received these gifts from God, yet they disobeyed and in the end they had died in the wilderness. The apostle goes on to say that these things took place as examples for us so that we do not desire evil as they did; so we do not act as idolaters as they did; so we do indulge in sexual immorality as they did.
           We are always tempted to treat Jesus Christ and the Gospel as a kind of permission to sin. It’s easy to think, “Yes, I shouldn’t do this, but …” and then go ahead and do it because after all, at the end of the day Jesus has us covered. The old Adam in us wants to abuse the Gospel in this way. The devil wants us to become comfortable abusing it because this is the way that leads to the loss of faith.
            Paul goes on to say, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.”  Paul wants us to learn from the example of Israel.  We see in them that the miracles of God in our midst do not provide the freedom to engage in sin.  Instead we are called to show discipline in struggling against sin because of the amazing salvation God has given us in Christ.
            The apostle says that we are those upon whom the end of the ages has come. In the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ God has carried out the end time action to give you forgiveness and salvation.  We live as people who exist in a unique moment in time. We live in the last days because of what Jesus Christ has done.
            The dramatic action by God has done great things.  Earlier in the letter, Paul wrote, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.
And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
            No matter what you have done, in Holy Baptism your sins were washed way.  You were sanctified – you were made holy because of Jesus’ death and resurrection for you.  You were justified – you are ready for the Last Day because of Christ.  The imperishable wreath – the crown - awaits you.
            The Holy Spirit has made you a new creation in Christ.  He is the continuing source of the life that pleases God.  He leads.  He provides the ability.  And so there are always two things happening when we live as Christians.  The first is that by the work of the Spirit we seek to live the “athletic” Christian life Paul describes.  We seek to discipline the flesh and keep it under control.  We invest effort towards the goal of living in ways that please God.  We look for ways to help our spouse or family member.  We keep our mouth shut instead of sharing gossip and hurting a person’s reputation.  We don’t go to that website and look at that pornography.
            And when we are aware of failures, we repent. We confess them as sin against God, for that is what they are. And we give thanks that baptism is not something that only applies to the past.  It didn’t only wash away some sins.  It washes away every sin that we confess as we believe in Jesus Christ.  When we believe God’s promise about what he has done in baptism, we have exactly that. We know that we are washed, sanctified, and justified.
            We rejoice in what the Spirit has done for us, and what he continues to do.  The Spirit gives us the means to run so that we may obtain the prize.  He gives the desire and ability to exercise self-control and to discipline our body. He does this because of who Jesus is and what he has done for us.  He does this, because we have been baptized. 

Friday, February 15, 2019

Commemoration of Philemon and Onesimus

Today we remember and give thanks for Philemon and Onesimus.  Philemon was a prominent  first-century Christian who owned a slave named Onesimus. Although the name "Onesimus" means "useful," Onesimus proved himself "useless" when he ran away from his master and perhaps even stole from him (Philemon 18).  Somehow Onesimus came into contact with the apostle Paul while the latter was in prison, and through Paul's proclamation of the Gospel he became a Christian. After confessing to the apostle that he was a runaway slave, he was directed by Paul to return to his master and become "useful" again. In order to help pave the way for Onesimus' peaceful return home, Paul sent him on his way with a letter addressed to Philemon, a letter in which he urged Philemon to forgive his slave for having run away and "to receive him as you would receive me" (v. 17), "no longer as a slave, but as a beloved brother" (v. 16). The letter bears witness to the power of the Gospel as it unites people in Christ and forges the one people of God and was eventually recognized by the Church as one of the books of the New Testament.

Collect of the Day:
Lord God, heavenly Father, You sent Onesimus back to Philemon as a brother in Christ, freeing him from his slavery to sin through the preaching of the apostle Paul.  Cleanse the depths of sin within our souls and bid resentment cease for past offenses, that, by your mercy, we may be reconciled to our brothers and sisters and our lives will reflect your peace; through Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.