The 2 Most Important Words in the Bible

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!easter angel

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, my goal today is to convince you that the 2 most important words in the Bible are found in the Gospel reading for today.

In fact, in confirmation class, when I teach on the New Testament, I ask my students to guess what those two most important words might be, and if they can guess it, they will win a prize. Now the rule is that they have to be successive words in the Bible. They can’t just be two words pulled out of different books or chapters, like “grace” and “Jesus.” They usually come up with some pretty good guesses. Inevitably, “Jesus wept” is guessed because of its familiarity. But that’s not it. I had one student guess “By grace,” and that was probably one of the best guesses. It’s hard to top that.

But I believe that there are two words that do top it, and I always do a big reveal in class, but for you, I have already given the answer away. Not only did I say that the words are found in the Gospel reading for today, but they are in fact the title of my sermon- “And Peter.” And Peter? Yes, and Peter from Mark 16:7 “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee.”

Transition: The big question obviously is: “Why are these the two most important words in the Bible?” Now I’ve got to make my case.

Consider what happened just a few days before Jesus’ resurrection.

Let’s start on Thursday evening after the Last Supper. Jesus and his disciples were on their way to the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane. This is from Mark 14. And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ 28 But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” 29 Peter said to him, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” 30 And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” 31 But he said emphatically, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And they all said the same.

Fast forward now to verse 43 in Mark 14. And immediately, while Jesus was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. 45 And when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” And he kissed him. 46 And they laid hands on him and seized him. 47 But one of those who stood by drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 48 And Jesus said to them, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? 49 Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the Scriptures be fulfilled.” 50 And they all left him and fled. The first part of Jesus’ prediction comes true. Peter and the other disciples fall away.

Fast forward once again to verses 66-72. And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came, 67 and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him and said, “You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.” 68 But he denied it, saying, “I neither know nor understand what you mean.” And he went out into the gateway and the rooster crowed. 69 And the servant girl saw him and began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” 70 But again he denied it. And after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.” 71 But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, “I do not know this man of whom you speak.” 72 And immediately the rooster crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.

peter roosterPeter denies Jesus, not once, not twice, but three times. He doesn’t just deny following Jesus. He denies even knowing Jesus. And the rooster crows. Despair and dread fills Peter as he realizes that he has done exactly what Jesus predicted, exactly what he had emphatically promised would not happen.

Despite his best efforts, despite his promises and convictions, despite his well-meaning words, when His Lord needed him the most, he denied that he even knew him. He had let Jesus down and now Jesus was going to die. He had let fear overcome his convictions.

Fast forward to Easter morning. “Jesus is risen. He is not here.” The angel announces to the women. “Now go and tell his disciples and Peter to meet him in Galilee just as he said that night in the Garden.”

I want you to imagine the scene in the Upper Room before the resurrection announcement. The disciples are hiding in fear and in sorrow. I picture Peter sitting by himself in a corner- still despairing and mourning, not just about Jesus’ death but about his denial.

Suddenly the women burst through the door with amazing, unbelievable news! Jesus is risen! And he want his disciples and Peter to meet him in Galilee.

Now imagine if both the angels and the women had merely said “the disciples” without the additional “and Peter.” How do you think Peter would have reacted to their announcement? It would have been easy for him to conclude that he was not included in the invitation, that he no longer deserved to be called a disciple. Sure, the other disciples had run away from Jesus too, but only Peter had denied Jesus three times. The announcement that Jesus is alive might not be heard as good news to Peter. “Jesus is alive? Oh no! He was right all along. He truly is the Son of God, and I denied him. I rejected him. He won’t want me anymore.”

Instead though, imagine Peter sitting in that corner by themselves listening in as the women tell the story of the empty tomb and the angel. And the angel said, “He is risen. He is not here. Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going to Galilee.”

And Peter? Did Peter hear that right? Did you just say “and Peter?” Jesus wants me? Even though I denied him three times? Even thought I let fear and doubt overcome my faith and conviction? Jesus, the Lord of all, still wants me to be his disciple?

In that moment, the power of God’s forgiveness became very real to Peter. In John’s Gospel, he records that Peter, upon hearing the women, races to the tomb to see it for himself. Could it be true? Jesus is alive? And he still loves his disciples and Peter? Me?

Do you see now why these two words are the most important words in the Bible? Do you see how this is Good News, the greatest news, no matter what your name is?

After all, how many of you can identify with Peter’s fear and denial? I’m going to venture a guess that all of you have acted like Peter many times over, and I’m including myself in that.

We have all denied our Lord Jesus over and over again in our thoughts, words, and actions.

In our Rite of Confirmation, we ask our confirmands some tough questions.

“Do you intend to hear the Word of God and receive the Lord’s Supper faithfully?”

“Do you intend to live according to the Word of God, and in faith, word, and deed to remain true to God, even to death?”

“Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?”

How many of you have stood in this church and promised to continue steadfast in your church attendance, in your godly living, in your confession of faith, rather than fall away from it? Maybe you didn’t quite have the passion of Peter, but you promised, “I do so intend by the grace of God!”

How many times have you also made promises to God privately? You resolve to do better in your Christian life. I am going to read God’s Word regularly. I am going to go to church more often. I am going to quit that habitual sin. I am going to stand up for what I believe and even witness to my friends and neighbors. I can’t even remember all the promises I have made to God, and like Peter, had every intention of following through on.

broken promisesAnd then I failed. Over and over again. I failed to keep my promises and convictions. I failed to follow Jesus and walk in his ways and live according to God’s Word. I failed to read God’s Word and pray according to the schedule I made. I chickened out and didn’t share God’s Word to someone who desperately needed to hear it. I am Peter.

And if you are honest with yourself, you will admit that you, too, are Peter. Probably more often than you want to admit. You are, like Peter, a denier of Jesus. You see, every temptation to sin is, at its root, a temptation to disbelieve the Gospel. John Calvin once said, “Christian are in perpetual conflict with their own unbelief.” We sin when we are dissatisfied with the all-satisfying Christ, when we do not fear, love and trust in him above all things. Every time we sin, we deny Jesus the rightful place in our life.

Peter denied Jesus out of fear of the consequences of following Jesus, that he might be treated just like Jesus was and put to death. He doubted Jesus’ words of promise that he would rise again and that he is Resurrection and the Life for all who believe in him. When he was confronted with his sin and disobedience and unfaithfulness, he broke down and wept bitterly. He had failed. What hope was there for him? What hope is there for us?

Then came the Good News declared by the angels that changed Peter’s life and changes your life too. The Good News that is not just for those had not denied Jesus. It is Good News for them, and Peter, and you.

Despite his denial, his unbelief, his sin and failure, Jesus loved Peter and wanted him as a disciple. He forgave and restored him. Jesus died and rose again for Peter. That Good News was delivered to him personally. And Peter. There was no doubt. The Good News of forgiveness through Jesus’ death and resurrection was for him! His very name was spoken.

You have that same confidence. The same Good News delivered to Peter is also delivered to you personally.

Fittingly, it is delivered by Peter in Acts 2. Upon receiving the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Peter preaches a sermon. He concludes with this, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

You crucified Jesus. Your sins put him on the cross. Peter knew that his sins had put Jesus on the cross. And like Peter, the crowd, upon realizing their sin, were cut to the heart and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter got to deliver the same Good News that was delivered to him on Easter morning. “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” For you! For me? A denier? A promise breaker? A sinner? Yes, for you!

baptism called by nameAnd in Holy Baptism, God spoke your name and washed your sins away. I have called you by name. You are mine. You were buried into death with Jesus and raised to a new life in him and became his disciple. In the Lord’s Supper, you hear the words of Jesus repeated, “This is my body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” For me? Yes, you, as often as you need it, forgiveness is yours. Take and eat. Take and drink. Be forgiven. Be strengthened by my death and resurrection for you.

Have I convinced you? The two most important words in the Bible are “and Peter” because you can insert your own name in Peter’s place and have the confidence that Jesus died for you and rose from the dead for you. He comes to meet you in His Word, in baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper to declare that he loves you and forgives you and that he can still use you as his disciple no matter what. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! For you. For me. And Peter. Alleluia! Amen.

Apparently there is a Skit Guys sketch on this very topic that I was unaware of until my sister was actually able to guess the two words because she had seen their video. They do a great job of highlighting God’s grace as well. Here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhoFEuw2GPA

 

 

A Crowded Marketplace

crowded marketplaceI want you to imagine that you are in a crowded marketplace, walking among throngs of people. On every side of you are vendors selling their wares, putting their finest products out on display, and calling out to you and anyone who will listen. “Look at what I have. You won’t find anything else like it. Made with only the finest ingredients. Guaranteed fresh! You need this. You can’t live without this! Have you tried this before? This would look great on you! Well worth the money! This can satisfy you like nothing else can!” The voices blend together in a confusing symphony. Choices upon choices overwhelm you and threaten to drive you crazy. You buy one thing, and you immediately regret it because someone else is selling the same thing at another booth at a cheaper price. You’re tempted to just shove your fingers in your ears and run away.

This is the world that we live in, a huge marketplace, full of people and ideas and things which promise to satisfy your deepest longings and meet your every need.

The voices that call out to you are many. The voice of Greed is quite loud and powerful. Greed’s vendors are everywhere, telling you what you need to be fulfilled in life. Your job is what is most important! You have to keep fighting your way to the top, no matter what the cost. Once you get to the top, then you will have time to rest and enjoy the spoils of your success. First, you have to make as much money as you can. That’s the only way you can truly enjoy life. Then you can sit back, eat, drink and be merry. You’ve got to get yours! Other voices encourage you to go into debt to get what you want. It’s not that bad. A lot of people do it. Besides, you need that new toy, so you’re not the only one without it! You will figure out how you are going to pay for it later.

Suddenly, Greed is shoved aside by another vendor. Money isn’t everything, my friend. What really matters is what other people think of you! It’s the voice of Power and Status. Your reputation is what you need to build up. You have to earn enough people’s respect and admiration, and I can tell you what you need in order to get it. You need the right job, the right spouse and family, the right clothes, the right physical beauty. You won’t truly be satisfied until you have the right amount of power over your own life and over others. What’s important is being the self-made man or woman who lives life by their own rules. Don’t listen to those outdated morals of the last generation. Nobody gets to tell you what to do except you. It doesn’t matter who you run over along the way, as long as you live life the way you want to, impress the right people, and look down on the rest. That’s what I can offer you, my friend.

Please! Another voice, a soft, seductive voice, interrupts the voice of Power. You look up at the next vendor’s booth. Immediately you try to look away, but your eyes are drawn back. With possibly the most eye-catching display of all, Lust is calling your name. You begin to feel ashamed, but Lust quickly works to calm your fears. Relax! It’s normal and healthy to gratify all of your inner desires. Look all you want at what I have to offer. I won’t tell anyone. Don’t try to control your urges. Just give in. It won’t hurt anybody. Your sexual cravings are your most basic instinct. Satisfy them. Drink deeply of what I am offering you, whether you are by yourself or with a partner. I won’t ask any questions. There are no rules, no strings attached here.

These are the voices in the marketplace of life, and there are many more. They all promise you the good life. They all offer you that which you cannot live without. They all tell you that the cost of what they are offering you isn’t that high. They are all lying to you.

barbossaIn the movie Pirates of the Caribbean, the pirate leader, Captain Barbossa, is describing the curse that he and his crew are under because of treasure they took. They had heard about the curse, but they ignored the warnings as they looked for that which they thought would satisfy their every desire. But the curse was real. Captain Barbossa explains:

Find it, we did. And there be the chest… and inside, be the gold. We took them all! Spent ’em, traded ’em and fritted ’em away, for drink and food and pleasurable company. But the more we gave them away, the more we came to realize. The drink would not satisfy, food turned to ash in our mouths, and all the pleasurable company in the world could not slake our lust. We are cursed men. Compelled by greed, we were. But now, we are consumed by it. There is one way we can end our curse. All the scattered pieces of the gold must be restored and the blood repaid. Look! The moonlight shows us for what we really are. We are not among the living, and so we cannot die, but neither are we dead. For too long I’ve been parched with thirst and unable to quench it. Too long I’ve been starving to death and haven’t died. I feel nothing… not the wind on my face nor the spray of the sea, nor the warmth of a woman’s flesh.

The world’s marketplace has a similar curse attached to it. It is the curse that has existed since Adam and Eve first gave in to temptation. The curse is the price we pay when we listen to the call of the marketplace. The curse is broken relationships with each other as we seek to gratify our own desires and give in to the call of Greed, Power, and Lust. The curse is dissatisfying marriages, broken families, ruined friendships, the trampling of the weak and vulnerable. The curse is never being completely satisfied by what the world has to offer. No matter what you have, you always want more. You always need more. It is never enough.

The curse is spiritual death. We are not among the living for we are dead in our trespasses and sins. And so we are parched with thirst and unable to quench it. We are starving to death but have not died, at least not yet. The curse eventually leads to physical death and then to eternal death as well. There is only one way to end the curse. It must be paid for, not with gold or silver, but with blood.

We are dying, but the marketplace doesn’t notice or care. It just keeps calling out to you, promising you true life and happiness but leading you to despair and death. The voices blend together in confusing symphony. Choices upon choices overwhelm you and threaten to drive you crazy. You’re tempted to just shove your fingers in your ears and run away. You wish you could run away.

All of a sudden, above the clamor, amidst the chaos, you hear another voice, a strong powerful voice, calling out to you with a gracious invitation. “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come; buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; hear, that your soul may live!”

You’re drawn to the voice. What fool would be giving away their goods without any price? What kind of person can offer food and drink that will not only satisfy you but give you life? The voice pulls you away from the marketplace. The other vendor’s voices fade away. All you can hear is the singular voice calling out, “Come to me and live! Come, for everything is ready!”

Come, for everything is ready!

Come, for everything is ready!

Finally, you see him. He has no form or majesty that you should look at him, and no beauty that you should desire him. In fact, his appearance is so marred; it is beyond the resemblance of any human being. This man is despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he is despised, and we esteemed him not. He seems like a man who has borne many griefs and carried many sorrows. He has wounds on his head, his hands, his side, his feet. Yet the blood which flows from these wounds is what he is offering for you to drink. Come, everyone who thirsts! Come, even though you have no money; come, buy and eat of my life-giving flesh. Drink of my blood which is poured to make satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. By my wounds, you are healed. By my death, you are given life. Come to me and be completely satisfied.

This vendor is the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. It is Jesus. He offers you eternal life without price because he has paid for it already, not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death. He has taken the curse of death upon himself and frees you from it. He invites you to his feast, the Lord’s Supper, to take and eat the true bread of life and to take and drink the only wine that can provide you with true joy and peace amidst your struggles. “Just like the bread Jesus feeds the 5,000 with is bread without price: not worked for or earned, but given by grace. So is the Lord’s Supper. In Jesus, the curse of Adam is ended, and we receive bread that is not worked for, earned, or merited, but given as a gift to every poor, miserable sinner hungry for salvation.” (H/T Rev. Andrew Yeager) The forgiveness and grace you receive in this meal can bring satisfaction to your marriage, heal your family, reconcile your friendships, and raise up the weak and vulnerable. This meal gives you Christ Himself, and in him, you have everything you need. The invitation to this feast is for rich and poor, young and old, male and female, for all who hunger and thirst for what only God can give. This gracious invitation is for you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Let us pray: Lord Jesus, just as you satisfied the hunger of thousands of people by multiplying the loaves and fish and still had plenty left over, satisfy our longing hearts with your love and grace which never end. Forgive our sins and help us to find contentment in you and to listen to Your voice alone. Amen.

This is a sermon based on Isaiah 55:1-5 and Matthew 14:13-21 for the 8th Sunday after Pentecost

 

 

When God Seems Far Away

Today is the day of Jesus’ ascension into heaven as recorded in Acts 1:6-11.

ascension disciplesSo when (the disciples) had come together, they asked (Jesus), “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.”

I recently had someone tell me that God seemed far away. They have really been through a lot in the last couple of years, struggling constantly with medical issues. It has been one thing after the other. Understandably, this person was discouraged. They wondered if God was really listening to their prayers. They wondered if God really cared. I was reminded of David’s words in Psalm 13:

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

2 How long must I take counsel in my soul

and have sorrow in my heart all the day?

How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

It can seem that Jesus is absent from your life. In fact, that is exactly what Satan wants you to think. “Jesus left this earth! He left you behind! He doesn’t care. He isn’t with you always like he promised!” Yet I was reminded today by Martin Luther that Jesus has not abandoned us. He is very near, and we know where to find him. He doesn’t tell us to look in our hearts to find him or feel him. He points us to visible signs of his grace and presence. I’ll let Martin Luther take it the rest of the way, and I pray that you will be strengthened by Christ’s very real presence on this Day of Ascension.

God has given us Baptism, the Sacrament of the Altar, and absolution to bring Christ very close to us, so that we can have Him not only in our heart but also on our tongue, so that we can feel Him, grasp Him, and touch Him. God did all this for the sake of those shameful spirits who seek God according to their own pleasure, with their reason and their own ideas and dreams. To make it possible for us to recognize Him, God presents Himself to us perceptively and clearly in signs.

But we do not accept these; nor are we concerned about the divine Word, although Christ the Lord Himself says: “The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own authority, but the Father who dwells in Me does His works” (John 14:10); again: “He who hears you hears Me” (Luke 10:16); and again: “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to the whole creation; he who believes the Word of God and is baptized will be saved” (Mark 16:15-16).

But we utterly disregard such words of the Gospel as well as absolution. Thus we perceive God not only with our hearts but also with our eyes and our hands, for He gives us a tangible and visible sign of Himself. At all times Good has so governed His people that He could also be recognized visibly by them, lest they say: If it were possible to find God, we would roam to the ends of the earth in search of him.” If you had ears to hear, it would be needless to wander far in search of God. For He wants to come to you, plant Himself before your very eyes, press Himself into your hands, and say: “Just listen to Me and take hold of Me, give Me eye and ear; there you have Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar. Open your mouth, let Me place My hand on your head. I give you this water which I sprinkle over your head.” – Martin Luther

Where is Jesus? Right here

Where is Jesus? Right here

Minor Characters in Luke’s Christmas Story: Simeon

My eyes have seen Your salvation

My eyes have seen Your salvation

This character is the first one that I have highlighted that actually has speaking lines. But today’s character does not appear on the night or day of Jesus’ birth. Rather, he encounters the baby Jesus 40 days after his birth. Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to Jerusalem for the time of purification according to the Law of Moses and to present him to the Lord. And there was a man in Jerusalem named Simeon, and he was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the HS was upon him. This is all according to Luke chapter 2. It had been revealed to Simeon by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Messiah of Israel. And when he saw Jesus, he took him in his arms and said these words, now known as the Nunc Dimittis: “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”

What a wonderful confession of faith provided by this old man who was waiting for God to fulfill his promise to him. He could now depart, or die, in peace because God had kept his promise and he had seen God’s salvation in the flesh, the baby Jesus. God used Simeon to proclaim the Good News of Jesus who came to bring salvation and light to the darkness and glory to God’s people.

My eyes have seen Your salvation

My eyes have seen Your salvation

Simeon’s impromptu prayer of praise, which once again is called the Nunc Dimittis (which is Latin for “now dismiss”) is a prayer that can be said by all Christians everywhere at any point in their lives. Because we have seen God’s salvation through Jesus with our eyes of faith, we can depart from this earth in peace at any time. This song of praise is especially appropriate as we leave the altar after receiving the Lord’s Supper. In the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is actually present with us giving out his gift of salvation and forgiveness. We are in the very presence of Jesus Himself, and that brings us peace. We can live in the confidence that we belong to God, that we have peace with him, and that we have glory waiting for us because we are God’s people.

As the prayer for today, I encourage you to read once again Simeon’s words of praise upon seeing the Christ- child, and may you follow the example of Simeon whose faith in God endured to the end.

We miss you!

Thanksgiving Day is a holiday that is traditionally celebrated with family members. It could be your nuclear of your extended family. Many families go over to Grandma and Grandpa’s house or to Uncle Lou and Aunt Dottie’s. One thing that the host of Thanksgiving needs to know is how many people are going to make it. Family members check in. “We’ll be there.” “We’re going to make it, but we will be a little late!” “I can come, and I’ll bring the pie!”

Nobody wants to hear the words, “We’re not going to make it this year.” Whether they live too far away or they have to go to the other side of the family’s place, it is disappointing when everyone can’t be together to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner. This year, my oldest sister and her husband and kids will be stopping by for a short time at my mom and dad’s, but they won’t be staying for dinner. They are going to my brother-in-law’s house. We will miss them, just like I know that my wife and I and our son will be missed at my wife’s family’s dinner. You just wish everyone could be together to eat and drink and celebrate.

It should be the same way in the family of God. We should miss those who do not join us in worship on Sunday. We want the whole family to be there, to be together to eat and drink and celebrate. During the worship service, we have the opportunity to participate in a heavenly meal, the Lord’s Supper which is a “foretaste of the feast to come.” This meal is not an individual act. It is a uniting act for the whole community as we gather around Christ’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins and the strengthening of our faith. Even those who have died in the faith join us for this meal as we eat and drink with “angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.”

But we miss those who choose to make themselves absent. And we need to let them know. We need to encourage our absent brothers and sisters to join us in church because that is where God comes to us and fills us up with his Word and sacraments. This post was inspired by another blog post I read today entitled “When You Do Not Go to Church:”

“If I decided one Sunday just to skip Church that week, do you think anyone would notice? Ah, you say, but you’re the pastor. Yes, they’d notice. I agree. They would. But it also makes a difference when YOU decide to skip Church this Sunday.

“Each Sunday is a gathering of the family – and when a beloved family member doesn’t show up for the family gathering and meal at Christmas or Easter or Thanksgiving, there’s a hole, a gap, a pain that everyone feels. We’re all the less for that person not being with us to revel in the celebration of that day. Their absence diminishes the joy of the family. So when you choose to skip on Sunday, when you don’t come together with your church family to join in offering the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving and to receive the gifts your Lord has for you, it’s not just you that miss out. Your extended family – the Church – misses out. They are diminished by your decision to absent yourself. The singing is that much quieter. The “amens” that much softer. The spot where you usually sit and stand reminds us all of your absence.

“Surely old Neuhaus was dead right on this: Christian discipleship should begin with a very simple commitment that any given Lord’s Day will find you in the assembly of God’s people, singing His praise, offering your prayers, receiving His gifts. The *only* reasons for missing is because you’re too sick to be present or because you’re away traveling – and even in the later case, blessed are you if you find the family gathered in that location and join with them.”

“Let us consider how to stir one another up to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:25

To those absent from church: we miss you. We need you with us each and every Sunday. Something’s just not right when you’re not there.

Seeing Stars

Matthew 2:1-2 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

Happy Epiphany! Many of us relate the story of the magi, or wise men, from the east to Epiphany. You may be surprised to learn that this is a relatively new tradition. From The Treasury of Daily Prayer:

The feast of the Ephiphany of Our Lord commemorates no event but presents an idea that assumes concrete form only through the facts of our Lord’s life. The idea of Epiphany is that the Christ who was born in Bethlehem is recognized by the world as God. At Christmas, God appears as man, and at Epiphany, this man appears before the world as God. That Christ became man needed no proof. But that this man, this helpless child, is God needed proof. The manifestations of the Trinity, the signs and wonders performed by this man, and all His miracles have the purpose of proving to men that Jesus is God. Lately, especially in the Western Church, the story of the Magi has been associated with this feast day. As Gentiles who were brought to faith in Jesus Christ, the Magi represent all believers from the Gentile world.

Now that you’ve had a quick primer on Epiphany, I do want to talk about the magi and the star that arose which allowed them to find Jesus. What a miracle that God used a star to lead these Gentiles to Jesus so that they could worship him! It might make us wonder what miraculous way God will lead us to Jesus. What is your star? What sign is God going to show to you personally?

We see this kind of thinking in Christianity quite frequently; this idea that God is going to reveal himself to you in a special way and lead you on your own path to Jesus. Your star might be a powerful, mountaintop worship experience. Your star might be an inner voice that seems to be directing you where God wants you to go. Your star might be a form of obedience: through fasting, through meditation, through not drinking or not eating meat, through following a specific to-do list. Your star might be acquiring knowledge. Your star might be a vision which you believe to be from God. The key in this teaching is that God is going to speak to you and come to you in a new, completely personal way.

My friends, this is is dangerous thinking. First of all, it is completely subjective. Since these are all personal experiences, how are you to know that this is truly God speaking to you? Because you feel that it is? Are you going to place your confidence in your own subjective feelings?

Second of all, God does not work in this way. Notice that I say that God cannot work in this way. God certainly did use a star to guide the wise men. But that is a descriptive story. We cannot take that story and apply it to our lives by saying, “Just like God used a star to lead the wise men to Jesus, He is also going to use a ‘star’ (a personal sign) to lead me to Jesus and guide me in my Christian life.” God certainly is able to show himself to you and give you a personal sign. But how are you to know that it is truly God? Perhaps it is the devil masquerading as an angel of light.

Hebrews 1:1-2a “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” You see, God does give us stars, or signs, to lead us to Jesus. But these are not personal, subjective experiences. God works through means to deliver Jesus to us. Specifically, He uses the means of grace: the Word of God and the Sacraments. These are the “stars” that we can point to and say with confidence “There is Jesus.” We find Jesus in the proclaimed Word of God. We can say with confidence that Jesus has saved us and washed us from our sins because we can point to the sign and seal of Baptism which has the promise of Jesus attached to it. Jesus never said, “Make sure you pay attention because I might whisper some pretty important stuff to you sometime during your life.” But he does say, “This is my body. This is my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus Himself has promised that we will find him in God’s Word, in Baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper.

And we know that these promises are for all people because God led the wise men, who were not part of Israel, God’s chosen nation, to Jesus. So once again, happy Epiphany! Jesus is true God and true Man and is revealed as our only hope for salvation. We know exactly where to find Him: in the means of grace.

Worthiness Pt. 2

At the end of Part 1 on worthiness to receive the Lord’s Supper, I mentioned that the receiving of the Lord’s Supper is never an individual act. Obviously, there is an aspect of individual worthiness that I covered in the first part. When you eat and drink the bread and wine, it is Jesus’ body broken for you and Jesus’ blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. However, we can never forget the communal aspect of communion. We eat and drink together with our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are united in Christ, the head of the Church. Those who receive the body and the blood of the Lord do so, therefore, in terms of their relationship with God as well as with their fellow-communicants.

When we commune together at the same altar, we are expressing that there is unity among us. We are expressing unity with the saints who have gone before us who join us in this foretaste of the feast to come. Unfortunately, on this side of heaven, there is not unity in Christ’s church. Therefore, we as Lutherans also recognize that even Christians who are not confessing Lutherans may also eat and drink in an unfitting way when they commune in a Lutheran church.

This is why we believe in close(d) communion. We recognize that there are significant differences in what Christians believe, teach and confess. Unlike other Christian church bodies, we view these as very significant. One big area of disagreement is on the nature of the Lord’s Supper itself. Most Protestant church bodies (Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, most non-denominational churches and others) do not believe in the real presence of Jesus in the Sacrament of the Altar. For them, it is merely a memorial meal. If Jesus is present, it is only in spiritual sense. A good way to recognize whether a Christian believes in the real presence is to ask 2 questions (just learned these 2 questions myself): 1. When you eat the Lord’s Supper, do you eat Jesus orally? Does He go into your mouth? 2. If a Buddhist, or a Wiccan, or a Jewish person sneaked into the Lord’s Supper and they also ate the bread, would they eat Jesus? The answer to both those questions, both biblically and from a Lutheran Confessions standpoint is “yes.” Those other church bodies would say “no.”

So what? you might ask. (and so would they) Is it really that big of a deal. Well….yeah, it is. As Lutherans, we recognize that the Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper actually give us Jesus. We base this off of His own words and promise. So to believe differently means that we really don’t agree on who Jesus is and what He has done for us and what He continues to do for us. That’s a big deal. All doctrinal differences really come down to what we Lutherans call the chief doctrine: justification. That is, what Jesus did for us on the cross.

So once again, the reason we ask those who are non-members of the Lutheran church to refrain from participating in the Lord’s Supper at our altar is out of love and care for them. Since communion is never an individual act, “just me and God up there” but rather a confession of unity with those who are communing with you, then how can we in good conscience allow those who clearly are not in unity with us? This also goes for when we Lutherans visit other church bodies for worship. Should we commune with them? No. To do so would be to confess that we hold the same beliefs. “But, pastor, clearly I do not. Can’t I just participate while holding to what I believe?” Certainly in your mind you can. But once again, the Lord’s Supper is never an individual act. It is an expression of unity, and your outward expression of participation implies that you have the same confession of faith, whether you want it to or not.

This is not an easy teaching for us, especially since many churches have the policy of “y’all come” regarding their celebration of the Lord’s Supper. However, the Lutheran Church- Missouri Synod teaches in accordance with the Scriptures, the Confessions, and the historic tradition of the church (“open” communion is a rather new novelty) when it asks that fellow-Christians who are confessors of a different doctrine not participate in the Lord’s Supper at our altars. We are not saying that they are going to hell. We are not doing it because we don’t like them. Here are a couple of questions and answers from the LCMS document entitled “Admission to the Lord’s Supper” that I think are helpful.

Question: How can we possibly say that all those Christians from other church bodies are unworthy to receive the Lord’s Supper? Isn’t that what we’re saying? Answer: Absolutely not! There are two reasons why people can be refused admission to the Lord’s Supper. The first has to do with faith and discerning the body. Those who do not have such faith and discernment would commune in an unworthy manner and thereby receive God’s judgment. But the second reason has to do with the need for a fitting ocnfessional unity among those who commune together. Roman Catholic Christians, for example, may be perfectly prepared to receive the Lord’s Supper in their own churches in a worthy manner and so to their own great blessing. But it would be unfitting for them, as confessors of their church body’s error, to receive the Sacrament in our churches.

Question: Why are we so unfriendly? When we tell some Christians that they can’t commune with us, it seems so unfriendly! Answer: It is probably inevitable that, when we ask people- including some fellow Christians- not to commune at our altars, some may conclude that we are ‘unfriendly.’ This is why it is so important that we explain ourselves and our teaching to others who, quite frankly, may not understand it at all. But when we explain, with genuine interest and friendliness, our doctrine that the Lord’s Supper is both a gift and a sign of unity, others will come to see that we do what we do not because we are unfriendly but because of what we firmly believe.

I hope this has created some clarity in this situation. It is not an easy one to put into practice especially since many churches do not practice close(d) communion. But the reason they do not is because they have an incorrect belief about what happens in the Lord’s Supper. For even more explanation in probably a more clear fashion than I have just articulated, watch the video below, specifically from the 2:00 mark to about the 10:00 mark. Sorry for the lack of pictures. I was in a hurry to put this up before the end of the day. Thanks for reading!