Christians Abide in His Word (John 8:31-36)

Reformation Sunday + October 30, 2016
Text: John 8:31-36
Celebrating the Reformation is an exciting time in the Lutheran Church.  Next year for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we really get to go all out.  But it’s important to double check that our excitement is more about being “Church” than it is about being “Lutheran.”  Our Synod has a handy phrase to remind us: “Reformation 2017: It’s Still All About Jesus”  And because it’s all about Jesus, let’s hear from Him:
“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples.”
Jesus makes this the defining characteristic of those who follow Him.  Those who bear the title Christian abide in His Word.  You can’t have Jesus without His Word.  If someone says they’re a Christian and they love Jesus but they don’t listen to His Word, that person is deceived.
What the Lord says is not anything new.  It was the same way for Israel—a true Israelite hears the Word of the Lord.  The statutes of God and the people of God are inseparable.  “If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them…I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people.”[1]  Whenever the people called by God’s Name tried to strike out on their own, God no longer called them His people.
The reformers made the same point as Jesus: God’s Word is the defining mark of Christians.  They said so, against powerful opponents who argued that the church was founded on Scripture and traditions, that it supposedly had divine authority to appoint and depose kings, and sentence men to death on the charge of false doctrine.  By God’s faithful deliverance, however, the truth and clarity of God’s Word prevailed over the enemies of Christ’s cross.  By God’s continued grace, the truth and clarity of His Word is proclaimed and believed today.
But in our day, 500 years after the Reformation, we see something tragic happening in all the descendants of this blessed awakening.  There is a pull away from abiding in the Word.  No corner of Christianity is immune to this—even our own Missouri Synod.
Excitement for what God’s Word has been replaced with pop psychology, parading as Christian teaching.  People flock to hear sermons on 10 things you can do to improve your marriage, your job, or live with more “joy.”  They want to be told what they should be doing to succeed, rather than what God works in you through His Word.
What we look to as blessing in the Church is no longer in being persecuted for proclaiming the truth (as Jesus says in Matthew 5:11).  Churches are chase after social trends so they can “bless” themselves with greater attendance and more programs.
Teachers of the Church are also under attack.  At many mainline seminaries, the Bible commentaries students use are written by unbelievers who dissect the motives of the authors.  The result is pastors and professors who consider the Bible no more than a religious manifesto by a bunch of backward, sexist, homophobic men.
Nevertheless, the Lord keeps a remnant for Himself—those who have not bowed before Baal and kissed him.[2]  That which is born of Spirit is spirit, and they still abide in His Word today.  These are truly His disciples.
Then Jesus says, “and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”
The picture of Christianity today is sometimes an exercise in nostalgia for what Church has been in the past.  People gather together, sing some songs about God, listen to someone talk about God.  Yet, all of this is to “do church” without Jesus or His Word.  Without Jesus, the gathering is just social.  The songs could replace the name Jesus with your boyfriend and make just as much sense.  The sermon could be a motivational speech given at a convention.  All the while people think they are being Christians, experiencing freedom, they haven’t actually been free because they haven’t heard the Truth.
See, when Jesus says that the Truth makes you free, He’s saying something about us.  We’re not free.  The people He’s speaking to pick up on that, too.  They respond, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.”  But Jesus isn’t talking about slavery you can see.  The bondage that Jesus speaks of is bondage to sin, and that’s something which—despite our best efforts to act free—we are powerless to free ourselves from.
The scary thing about Christians losing God’s Word is that people will never hear of their soul’s true condition.  Instead of seeing that they are “slaves to sin,” they’ll imagine there’s some glimmer of hope to help themselves (this delusion really helps book sales, by the way).  Maybe they’ll think of themselves as religious free agents, who can choose whichever way to God speaks to them the most.  They may imagine that God looks down from heaven and smiles because there are some people who are really trying hard to be good.[3]  They might go to church just because it’s the social or family thing to do, but never have a passing thought of repentance.
But the Truth sets us free because He sheds His light from heaven on our sinful squalor, the deadly mess that we are in.  He wakes us up from our complacency of downplaying sin and its effects.  So, He shows us that we are truly slaves to sin, but that He truly is our Redeemer.
When we know the Truth, we find that we can only look to Him for hope.  It comes down to simple math: 100% Jesus, 0% us.  If we claim any worthiness we for ourselves, we take it away from Christ.   However free we think we are from sin’s dominion, we take that much power away from Christ.  With our Savior Jesus Christ, it really is all or nothing—either He is the one who has all the power to save, all the power to free us, or we land somewhere else without a Savior.
In the freedom which Jesus gives, there is blessed assurance: “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”  Because it’s 100% God’s work, your life is secure, anchored to solid rock.   That’s something only the Lord can deliver, because it won’t be found in pop Christian trends which are only the work of human hands.
If you want certainty in life’s trials, abide in the Word of your Baptism.  God has freed you from the power of sin and even death.  In your weakness, God has given you a continuous fountain of life in which to wash you and present you without spot or blemish.[4]
In your mortal body, abide in the Word of Christ’s Body and Blood given in, with, and under bread and wine.  This is His Body, risen victorious from the grave.  This is His blood, shed for the full remission of all our sins.
Abide in the Word of God, in your ear, on your forehead, and on your tongue.  The Word He speaks is the Truth which sets you free today from your sins and on the last day from the bonds of death!  Amen.
[1] Leviticus 26:3, 12
[2] 1 Kings 19:18
[3] Psalm 53:2-3
[4] Ephesians 5:26-27

Naked Sinners Clothed by a Gracious God (Luke 18:9-17)

Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost + October 23, 2016
Text: Luke 18:9-17
In the age of social media, exhibitionism is at an all-time high.  People are sharing everything from their child’s first steps to what they had for dinner.  This has invited friends and acquaintances to “like” and comment their way into previously private moments.
Even though he didn’t have a Facebook page, the Pharisee in today’s parable wanted to be seen, like a child who hungers for attention.  He wanted God to “like” what he had done and give His divine approval: “The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men…”
On the other hand, with social media and the ability to spread information, there are things that you would rather not have shared.  What destruction has been wreaked in people’s lives by private comments and pictures being opened to the wrong parties or for the sake of revenge.  It has even driven some to the point of suicide.
The tax collector is not at all interested in sharing what he has done, especially what he has done against God.  He sneaks in the back of the temple, too ashamed to come any closer into the Divine Presence.  But if you think about it, who wants an audience when you sin?   Who would want their uncensored thoughts and intents to be broadcast to others?  Who would want their indiscretions and foolishness to be known?
But that’s what God’s Word does. It exposes us before Him.  It strips us naked of even those things we manage to hide from other people.  As the Apostle says, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”[1] God’s Law leaves sinners so vulnerable that it’s unthinkable that they would point out another person’s faults while all theirs are clear in God’s sight: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” (Rom. 2:1)
Sin is something to be ashamed of, which is fully what God intends when His Law is preached.  If we are not ashamed (or worse even proud of our actions), then a grave spiritual hardness has taken root.  “If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” (1 John 1:10)
But God in His mercy doesn’t broadcast our shame abroad, like bullies and jilted ex-lovers so often do.  When Adam and Eve had sinned and their nakedness became a shame and reminder of broken relationship with God, God provided covering for their shame: “the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.”[2]
That’s because God has a loving way of dealing with each of our shames—public and private.  His way was to make a public spectacle of them.  His Son, Jesus was made a public display of human sin on the cross.  We know that “God made Him to be sin for us,”[3] but realize that He did this openly.  Jesus was stripped naked before God and man, and they cast lots for His clothing.  He was nailed to a cross and lifted up like a banner for all to see.  Though Rome meant this to be a spectacle for any would-be insurgents, God used the cross to testify that He was reconciling the world to Himself and making peace.  Now this open display of God’s justice and love is preached the world over.
Through Christ, just as He foreshadowed with Adam and Eve, He makes clothes for us—clothes wrought by the death of His Son—and He covers our nakedness.  He answers our cry for Him to have mercy upon us: “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ.”[4]  Your sin and nakedness has been covered completely by the perfect righteousness of Your Savior.  God has had mercy on you and you go down to your house justified.
The Pharisee stood boldly before God and waved all his supposed goodness in God’s face, wearing it proudly: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”  Yet those who exalt themselves and hold their best work up before God will be humbled.
Those who have been humbled by God’s Law despair even of their proudest achievements, and say, “We are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags.”[5]  This turns our thinking upside down because it means that even humanity’s finest achievements are nothing to brag about before God.  They are unclean in His sight.
The humble realize that the only thing you can wear proudly in God’s sight are the clothes which He Himself gives in Jesus Christ.  Paul, a former Pharisee, was stripped of every reason to boast before God and he confessed, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”[6]
So may God’s Law expose all of our nakedness and shame, so that we would have nothing left except to be graciously clothed by Him.  In the words of the hymn, Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness/My beauty art, my glorious dress/Midst flaming worlds in these arrayed/With joy shall I lift up my head.[7]  Amen.
[1] Hebrew 4:12
[2] Genesis 3:21
[3] 2 Corinthians 5:21
[4] Galatians 3:27: ἐνδύω (enduo) means to cloth oneself
[5] Isaiah 64:6 (NKJV)
[6] Galatians 6:14
[7] LSB 563:1

Praying in God's Faithfulness (Luke 18:1-8)

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost + October 16, 2016
Text: Luke 18:1-8
There’s a lot of material out there about prayer.  And most of it is misguided.   In much of what we hear about prayer, we’re led to believe that if we get down on our knees enough, or with just the right heart, or we catch God on a good day, we can change the world.  But instead of getting lost in the woods when it comes to prayer, let’s hear what our Lord Himself has to teach us.
He tells us this parable today because it is necessary[1] for us “always to pray and not lose heart.”  Right off the bat, it’s important to realize what Jesus is saying about prayer: It is not something you can take or leave.  It is an integral part of being a disciple, and if you willfully choose not to pray, you’ll have to answer to God why you despised His command.
Yet unlike other things God commands, like not stealing or committing adultery, prayer is not an action that can be forced out of us.  Prayer can only come from faith.  And faith is what this parable is about, or rather how to not lose faith when our eyes are met with many evil things (see what immediately precedes this parable in Luke 17:22-37).
So what is it that makes prayer falter for us?  Why do we lose heart?  There are a couple reasons for that.  First is our weak faith.  We might have too human an idea of prayer, that like country songs, prayer is nothing more than “talkin’ to the man upstairs.”  While that’s a simple picture to understand, we’re liable to think God is like a man[2] and subject to the shortcomings of men.  If that’s true, there might be times God simply isn’t listening, or that He’s too busy to be bothered with our lowly problems.
The second thing that discourages us in prayer is what we expect God to do in answer.  The widow in the parable was seeking justice against her adversary.  She had a specific request and it was answered in kind.  Jesus says, 8 I tell you, he will give justice to [His elect] speedily.”  Often we expect an exact answer for what we pray for—for this disease to be healed, this trouble to end, or this injustice or immoral course to change about the world.  Then, when we don’t get the way we think is best, God has somehow failed us.[3]
So, we shuffle prayer down to the bottom of our list of things to be done each day.  I can get by without it, or I’ll just pray while I’m doing other stuff.  It’s not that important, since God will do whatever He wants anyways.  But the only thing that gets hurt is our faith in God.  By having the wrong expectations of prayer, our view of God and His power and willingness to help is diminished.
Because our God is neither cryptic, nor corrupt, He gently rebukes us as His children and teaches us what prayer really is.  Listen to how Jesus begins to teach us how to pray: “Our Father…”  With those words, He throws out any notion of God being like the unrighteous judge, or a powerful-but-fallible man in charge of the world.   He is our Father in heaven, and we are His children on earth.  Though we are apart for the time being, nothing in all creation shall separate us from His fatherly love.[4]  As a good Father, He wants nothing but the wellbeing of His children.
But what about those unanswered prayers we’ve raised to Him?  Why haven’t we seen results?   The problem isn’t that He’s ignoring His children.  It’s that we need to learn what He actually promises and have eyes to look for that.  In the seven petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, we learn what to pray for and what we can rest assured God will do.

  • We pray that His Name be kept holy—the Name we were baptized into—and that we lead holy lives before Him. God will help Christians to be Christ-like in their Baptism—dying with Christ to sin and rising to walk in newness of life with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
  • We pray that Kingdom will come among us and to those who don’t yet know Him. This happens when His Word goes out and His Holy Spirit creates and strengthens faith in the ears of those who ear. When it comes to those outside the Church, there’s no need for us to bend over backwards to engineer church growth; our part is to pray to the Lord of the Harvest and trust that His Word will cause the growth.[5]
  • We pray that His Will is done over against the will of man or of the devil. That means it’s quite fitting to pray against the apostasy we witness in the church and world, and ask that God exert His authority for our common welfare.  It doesn’t mean the apostasy will go away completely, but that God will defend His elect who cry to Him.
  • We pray for daily bread, but this is often confused by what our selfish appetites desire. Here, God promises that He will support our life in this body as long as He grants it.  This also means that no matter what trials we endure, “He knows our frame and remembers that we are dust.”[6] He will uphold us no matter how severe things are or long it lasts.  God doesn’t promise perfect health, flawless finances, or that things will be easy.  Yet until we are brought to our heavenly home, God will certainly support us.
  • When we pray for forgiveness it’s especially important to be sure that we truly are forgiven by God. That’s what Jesus’ death and resurrection was all about.  Yet God didn’t just give Him for our sins, but the sins of the whole world.[7]  Because that’s true, we can follow our Savior’s example (“Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”[8]) and pray for and trust in God’s forgiveness for our enemies.
  • When we pray not to be led into temptation, we ask for two things. One is that God would keep us from becoming indifferent toward sin and its seriousness, even if something is now socially acceptable.  The other is that we pray for victory over the devil who deceives us.  “With might of ours naught can be done,” but our Savior will fight against the Evil Foe for us,[9] because He has already won the final victory.
  • The final petition, “Deliver us from evil,” reminds us that everything we’ve so far seen is but a passing shadow. Our faith is founded on the blessed assurance of immortality.  If God were not able to give full justice to His elect, He would be an impotent Savior.  But the Day of the Lord is coming when His children will see their victory over every adversary—sin, devil, and even death itself.  So we pray for an end to life as it is today and for God to usher in eternity, which He surely will do.

The Lord commands us always to pray and not to lose heart, and the question He asks is crucial: “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”  God gives His children the gift of the Holy Spirit, and that is how the Lord will find faith.  Our life as God’s children is no human undertaking.  God the Holy Spirit gave us faith in our Savior and new birth in Baptism, and He also preserves us in this faith despite those things which war against us.
When it comes to prayer, it is truly God’s work.  We approach Him not as strangers barging in, but as beloved children.  We ask Him not for outrageous signs to prove to us He exists, but for what He has promised to give.  Then, resting upon His Word, we wait on Him to answer us in the wisdom of His timing.  Amen.
[1] The Greek word dei marks divine necessity, along the lines of “it is necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things” (Lk. 9:22).  That is to say, prayer is not a matter of indifference to God.
[2] Numbers 23:19
[3] See James 4:1-3
[4] Romans 8:39
[5] Matthew 9:37-38, Isaiah 55:10-11
[6] Psalm 103:14
[7] 1 John 2:2
[8] Luke 23:34
[9] “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” (LSB 657)

God's Blessings Come Through the Cross (Luke 17:11-19)

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost + October 9, 2016
Text: Luke 17:11-19
Today’s Gospel tells us of one of the many healings which Jesus did.  The recipients were ten men of Jewish descent.  We know this because Jesus directs them to show themselves to the priest in Jerusalem.[1]   As people with a Jewish background, they were familiar with the spiritual significance of leprosy—that it made them unclean and therefore unfit to participate in the life of God’s people, much less be at the temple.[2]
But what if the ten men whom Jesus healed had been Greeks or Assyrians, who knew nothing about the God of Abraham?  Certainly we see healings happen today for those who know nothing or care nothing about the God who made heaven and earth.  Unbelievers receive the same kinds of bodily healing that Christians receive, at the hands of the same medical professionals.
Yet if you were to ask someone who’s not a Christian where their healing came from, they might credit the doctor, or medicine, or a breakthrough procedure.  The point is that God, who created them and preserved their life, gave them healing and they didn’t return in thanks to Him.
On the other hand, there are many who do see God’s hand in the good things we have on earth.  In America, our national motto is, “In God We Trust,”[3] and when our leaders address the nation after troubling times, they end with “God bless America!”  Speaking of that phrase, during World War II, Irving Berlin’s song, “God Bless America” became famous.
“God bless America, land that I love/ Stand beside her and guide her/ Through the night with the light from above”
Berlin praised God for watching over and guiding this country.  What’s interesting though, is that Irving Berlin was a Russian Jewish immigrant.  Yet, he penned a song that Jews, Christians, and even Muslims can sing without reservation.
Even the spiritual but not religious can give thanks to God for His temporal blessings.  But what we should look at is what makes the Samaritan unique so that Jesus praises His faith?
It’s a matter of knowing where the blessings really come from.  Ten lepers received the gift of cleansing, but on their way, one of them was given the understanding of faith.  Nine of them continued to the temple and the priest, but one turned around because the Holy Spirit gave Him insight to see something more.  He was given the bigger picture of why God showed him mercy.  It was because the One who healed Him was on His way to Jerusalem.
In Psalm 121, the people of God would sing, “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where does my help come?  My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”  For God’s people of old, this meant the place where the Passover Lamb was sacrificed and where prayers and sin offerings were daily made for the people of Israel.  But the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to see that when Jesus climbed the hill of Golgotha, bearing His cross and carrying the sins of the world, He was the true Passover Lamb and all-sufficient sin offering which God made for sake of all people.
In the Law, it was commanded of lepers, “He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.”[4]  So it was for the ten lepers, but the Holy Spirit opened the one’s eyes to see that God accomplishing a more perfect cleansing in Jesus.   As the Apostle to the Hebrews wrote, “Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood.”[5]  When God brought this to fulfillment it was the High Priest Himself who went outside the camp, whom God made to be sin who knew no sin—so that all who believe in Him might become clean, even the righteousness of God.[6]
So it is through Jesus Christ that God made peace with this sinful world.  It’s through the peace of the cross that God deals graciously with humanity.  The Lord says that His Father “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust.”[7]  It isn’t because we’re such faithful folks that God blesses America.  It isn’t because we deserve better medical care that He gave us skilled doctors.  It isn’t because one couple did something right that they have kids while another is barren.
God gives His blessings through the cross, so that all would come to know what sort of love He has for His creatures—every single person.  “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  “It was not because you were more in number than any other people…but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath He swore.” [8]  For those enlightened by Holy Spirit to know Christ, we are able to see how God gives His blessings even to the unthankful and the wicked.
That is also our source of comfort when the apparent blessings don’t come.  There were certainly more than ten lepers in all of Israel at that time, but Jesus didn’t relieve all of them.[9]  There were many who died on the same day as Lazarus of Bethany, but only he was restored to his family.  If we could only praise God at the times when it’s going well, we would have many silent hours, wondering what God is thinking.
Without the cross, we can’t be sure that we have a gracious God.  That’s because the only information we would have to go on is whether things are good or bad.  Unless we hear from the Word that the Lord loves us and that He is faithful to His promises, we might just fall into despair.  But Christ crucified and risen is the guarantee from God that not only gives us reason to glorify him for undeserved blessings today, and also a certain hope for all eternity.  As St. Paul writes, “He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?”[10]   When our eyes are fixed on the One who went up to Jerusalem, we’re confident of God’s fatherly love and trust that He will provide and support us whatever this passing life brings.
So with our Samaritan brother in the faith, we give glory to God not just for the gifts He gives today, but even more for His beloved Son who offered up His life for the world.  In Christ, we will glorify God even beyond the grave.  Amen.
[1] Leviticus 13 details this under the Law of Moses.
[2] Leviticus 13:45-46
[3] Adopted in 1956, possibly in response to the political threat of Communism which had ties to atheism.
[4] Leviticus 13:46
[5] Hebrews 13:12
[6] See 2 Corinthians 5:21
[7] Matthew 5:45
[8] Romans 5:8, Deuteronomy 7:7-8
[9] See Luke 4:16-30
[10] Romans 8:32

Protecting the Faith of Little Ones (Luke 17:1-10)

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost + October 2, 2016
Text: Luke 17:1-6 (p. 876 in pew Bible)
When you first hear this passage in Luke 17, it may seem like a cobbling together of different teachings of Jesus.  In fact, this is the capstone of Jesus’ teaching from the beginning of chapter 15, alternating between teaching his disciples and his enemies.  First Jesus addressed His opponents with the parables of the Lost Sheep, Coin, and Son.  Then in chapter 16, Jesus turned to His disciples to teach them about the difference between what God values and what we value.  Lastly, Jesus rebukes His enemies with the true teaching of the Law of Moses and the Prophets.
Given that background, the beginning of chapter 17 ties together all that Jesus has been teaching.  So here, Jesus is answering the question, What is the Kingdom of God really about, if not these human ideas?
As we work through this summary teaching, we need to dig deeper, so please open your pew Bibles to page 876.
“And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin [stumbling blocks] are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin [stumble].”
When we hear about temptations to sin, we often think about those things which lure our already-perverse desires toward what is evil.  It’s like the old cartoons with a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, and the devil’s telling us to do what we know is wrong.
If you look at the footnote on “temptations to sin,” you’ll see that the Greek literally says “stumbling blocks.”  Skandalon (think of scandal) is a snare used by hunters, so that their prey will stumble and be caught.  Think of how traps are made: they are built to entice by appearing genuine.  Food is laid out for a hungry rodent—only that when the cheese is taken, the snap comes down.
Jesus is talking about those things which ensnare people in their faith and cause them to doubt or fall away entirely.  This happens when Christians don’t practice what they preach—when they live contrary to God’s Word.
(This is what we pray to be protected from in the Lord’s Prayer when we pray, “Hallowed be Thy Name”: “But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the Name of God among us. Protect us from this, heavenly Father!”[1])
The point is that unchristian behavior doesn’t just put your own soul in peril through unbelief.  It endangers the souls of those who are young or weak in faith.
This point is so important that our Lord provides a gruesome illustration: Having a stone tied around your neck and being drown in the sea.  Surely it would be better to be executed this way than for another believer to perish in hell because you failed to “walk in a manner worthy of your calling,”[2] a manner worthy of the Name God placed on you in Baptism.
Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
Now Jesus teaches us how to avoid this terrible outcome.  How can we, the children of God, sinful as we are, avoid being stumbling blocks to the faith of others?  It’s done by calling sinners to repentance and forgiving them.
This is something we far too easily take for granted: Confession and absolution.  Oh yeah, that thing we do at the beginning of service.  But it’s so much more!  While you have your Bibles open, turn to Matthew 18 on page 823
18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
For Christians, being sorry for sin and extending forgiveness is no trifling matter.  This is the heart of the Christian Church because in confessing our sins and forgiving one another is to exercise the Keys of the Kingdom.  By forgiving your repentant brother or sister, you open the gates of heaven to them.  On the other hand, if you fail to forgive them when they are sorry, you shut heaven in their face and endanger them being lost for eternity!
Now turn back to Luke 17 (page 876):
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.
With all that’s at stake, and all the potential damage we can wreak, this is our prayer too!  Lord, increase our faith, because if it were left up to us, we all too often become stumbling blocks to those around us.  We have pointed the finger at our brothers and accused them on causing division in the congregation.  A cry has gone up to heaven because the people who are called Christian have behaved in an unchristian manner.  Lord, have mercy on us because we have sinned against you and against each other!
Our Lord’s response is good news for us: “If you have[3] faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”  It doesn’t depend on the amount of faith we have, but in Whom we believe.  “If you have faith like a grain of mustard”—Even if your faith is weak and you struggle to believe that God is able to do as much as He says—“you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted’…”  It’s possible because, in the words of one commentator, “It is not so much great faith in God that is required as faith in a great God.” (Grantley Morris)
God is the one who makes such a monumental thing possible as sinners like us being forgiven—not only for what we have done against the God who called us, but also for what we have done to hurt our brothers and sisters.
By His great power, our Lord is also able to make this Christian Church, here in this congregation, a place where repentance and forgiveness are abundantly practiced.  He gives us hearts to confess our sins to each other, and yes, to forgive each other even seven times in a day if that’s what’s needed.
This is what the Christian Church looks like: a place where the lost have been gathered together by the Lord, where we have been given ears to heed the Word of God, where our sins have been forgiven by the Lord, and we also must forgive one another their trespasses against us.   Truly, He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”[4]  Amen.
[1] Small Catechism, 3rd Part
[2] Ephesians 4:1-3
[3] Often mistranslated, the first part of this is not contrary to fact.  The NIV gets the first part right: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed…” then the NASB captures the rest: “you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; and it would obey you.”
[4] Philippians 1:6