The Feast of the Holy Trinity

Readings: Isaiah 6:1–8 | Acts 2:14a, 22–36 | John 3:1-17

Text: John 3:1-17

On this celebration of the Holy Trinity, we encounter a great mystery of the Christian faith—the nature of God.  Many men have sought and still seek to know God, to be part of something greater than themselves and to connect with the unseen.

The 11th century Benedictine monk, Anselm of Canterbury, attempted in his day to write single proof for the existence of God. His idea was that God is the highest thing that human understanding can conceive of. He wrote, “Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.” (Proslogion)  This excited him, because in philosophical terms, he had a handle on the truth of God’s existence.

Writing in the first quarter of the 20th century, Ernest Holmes, devised a philosophy based on the Bible, called Science of Mind, in which his approach to God is this:

“I believe, that Infinite Spirit, God, or whatever symbol is used to denote the All-Inclusive Intelligent Power running the Universe, has always existed—no beginning and no end. Infinite.” (Ernest Holmes, Science of Mind (1926), pp. 4)

Holmes acknowledges that God is infinite, eternal, and running the universe, but man can only make contact with the Infinite through devoting himself to study (a.k.a. buying his books) and contemplation.

The ancient religion of Hinduism believes the ultimate in the universe is the Supreme Soul or Brahman, as explained in a story in one of their sacred texts called the Skanda Purana:

“This knowledge of Brahman can only come to that person who is unattached to anything in the world. It is true that the disciple seeks a guru to gain knowledge. However if all the desires lurking in the heart are eliminated, then this knowledge automatically manifests in the heart. Such a person will attain Brahman.”[1]

So for the Hindu, knowing the Supreme can only come to a person who prepares themselves by eliminating all desire first.

Suffice to say, man has a lot of assertions about God—most of them very complex and open to only the elite who can attain to the “right” understanding.

Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night with his own kind of assertions: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.”  Granted, they were assertions based on Scripture: Moses was given signs to prove himself to the Israelites in slavery. Elijah and Elisha showed they were true prophets by providing for a widow, raising the dead, and cleansing a leper.  So the fact that Jesus is doing signs shows He has some link with the Lord God.

But Jesus makes it clear right from the beginning that Nicodemus doesn’t know half of what he thinks he knows.  It’s not because of some notion that he isn’t capable because he hasn’t purged his heart of desire, as the Hindus say.  It’s not that Nicodemus wasn’t intelligent enough to handle logic.

Rather, Jesus explains that the real problem with man not knowing God is a failing on our part:

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

Ignorance of God (true agnosticism)…is common to all men, and leads us to conclude wrong things about God.  “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Cor. 2:14)  It’s not simply a matter of deriving the perfect proof of God so that God dwells in your mind, or growing in spiritual prowess, or reforming yourself so that you rise above this physical existence to reach God where He is.

You must be born again.  Not reincarnated to give it a go with a fresh perspective.  You must be born from above—God’s work.  Our flesh has some deadly flaws in the spirituality department.

It leads us to extremes. On the one hand, saying God is found in this building, this group of people, this Lutheran synod.  On the other hand, saying God is found everywhere, even out on the lake while the rest of the congregation is at worship.  But far be it from God to promise to be both everywhere and specifically in a place like where His Gospel is preached, in the waters of Baptism, or the consecrated Bread and Wine of Holy Communion.

Our flesh leads us to accuse God of being silent in times of need, forsaking us because we can’t feel or see His activity.  God, you failed me when I watched my child die.  I tried reading the Bible, but I just didn’t feel any better when I did, so I just stopped.

We equate our apparent successes with the Lord’s endorsement.  Because this program had tremendous feedback and involved a lot of people, it must be blessed by God; but if very few if any come then it must mean we need to try new measures.  Joshua was tempted to this just before Jericho fell:

13 When Joshua was by Jericho, he lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, a man was standing before him with his drawn sword in his hand. And Joshua went to him and said to him, “Are you for us, or for our adversaries?” 14 And he said, “No; but I am the commander of the army of the Lord. Now I have come.” And Joshua fell on his face to the earth and worshiped.

Our sin-filled flesh wants to get some kind of handhold on God, because if we could just understand a little more, have some window into His hidden work, then we would be more in control of our lives.  But that isn’t the way the true God is. We have been deceived.  Contrary to our experiences and accomplishments, He says, “You must be born again” “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” (Luke 18:17) and “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; 26 yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.” (Matt. 11:25-26)

The model which the true God portrays to us is of a newborn baby and a little child.  Flesh has given birth to flesh, and despite mankind’s best efforts for millennia, none has ascended into heaven—not with our morals, not with our mystical experiences, and not with our minds.

Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

The knowledge of the true God is a gift bestowed by Him.  Despite what the devil and our sinful flesh might say, God actually does want to be known among us.

But you may ask, what is with the Holy Trinity?  Isn’t that far too complicated for the average child?  It doesn’t make sense mathematically; we can’t picture it except with ornate arrangements of circles and triangles; and when we try to explain it to our friends, they might just side with the Unitarians who say the whole thing was made up to overcomplicate religion.

Yet, as children of God, we confess the Holy Trinity—one eternal God in three distinct Persons—because that is how God has made Himself known among us.  No pope or monk invented this, except Tertullian coined the shorthand name for Three-in-Oneness. We aren’t asked to make it add up, or help God out with flawed analogies.  What the Triune God desires us to know most of all is what He has done for you through His Son, because when He wanted to be known by His human creatures, He came down to us.

13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

It is enough, dearly beloved, humble child of God, to know that your Father in heaven loved you before you were even born.  He arranged your adoption into His family, the forgiveness and removal of all your sins, and to bring you into His Kingdom.  He did this before you ever had your first blasphemous thought, or sin ever bore fruit in your thoughts, words, or deeds.  Here in time, His Spirit has called you by the Gospel and given you His enlightenment.  He has shown you Jesus, the Son of Man, lifted up on the cross—“suffered for [your] salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty” (Athanasian Creed, 36-37).

There is so much more to grow into in this Kingdom—much to dedicate our hearts and minds to learn from His Wisdom, many ways which our flesh must decrease and the Spirit’s work increase in us, and many times when we will misunderstand or stubbornly refuse to hear correction.  But your Father is gracious and patient, and most of all He loves you enough to do everything in His almighty power to keep you in this true faith.

This is what we as Christians confess.  We have three Universal Creeds to explain what we believe, and each has to go into greater detail because of the devil’s subtly and man’s pride in his own understanding.  But above all, we believe in God as He has made Himself known to us.  As holy and mysterious as His nature is, He has put His Name on you.  With His Name put on you in Baptism, this profound adoption took place. He made you His own child, and richly pours out on you all the blessings of His household: ears to hear His Word, eyes of faith to recognize His work, an open audience with the Almighty ruler of the universe, His life-giving strength for everything you must face in this life, and the hope of the resurrection from the dead and the life of the world which is to come.

It’s with good reason that we praise Him this and every day, Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning is now, and will be forever. Amen.

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The Feast of Pentecost

Readings: Ezekiel 37:1–14 | Acts 2:1–21 | John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

Text: John 15:26-27, 16:4b-15

The Day of Pentecost often gets a lot of attention because of how exciting it was.  From our second reading, we heard about the events of the day: a sound like a mighty rushing wind which got people’s attention, tongues as of fire, miraculously speaking other languages previously not studied, and so on.

But the impressive outward show is often not the point with God. After He had fed over 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish, the crowds followed Jesus all the way around the Sea of Tiberius because they ate bread.  When it came to actually accepting what that sign meant, many of them said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” and went away. (John 6:1-60).  God grant that our faith not be in the fireworks of Pentecost, but in the working and power of the Holy Spirit.

God helping us, if we listen the texts appointed for today with ears of faith, yes, the Holy Spirit is the One we focus on this Pentecost, but what is it that He is doing?

Pentecost isn’t the first time the Holy Spirit shows up.  He has been at work in creation from the very beginning: “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2).  In the Introit, we prayed together with our ancestors in Israel, from Psalm 104,

27 These all look to you,

to give them their food in due season.

    28 When you give it to them, they

gather it up;

when you open your hand, they

are filled with good things.

    29 When you hide your face,

they are dismayed;

when you take away their breath, they die

and return to their dust.

    30 When you send forth your Spirit,

they are created,

and you renew the face of the ground.

(Ps. 104:27-30)

God’s Spirit is the source of life as we all know it, and all on earth enjoy that gift.  Not only that, but we can see God providing for the needs (not always the wants) of all His creatures. 

But the Holy Spirit has so much more that He does beyond physical life and daily bread.  In the Old Testament lesson, this is what the Spirit does in these last days:

Then he said to me, “Prophesy over these bones, and say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

The word for Spirit and breath is the same (ru’ach), and the double meaning is intentional.  The Spirit (God’s breath) is giving life, but not only a beating heart and respiration.  There’s more: He puts breath into us, and we shall live…and you shall know that I am the Lord. 

This is what we confessed in the Nicene Creed, too.  “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life.”  The Holy Spirit breathes into us and gives us true life.  Anyone who has suffered from asthma or congestive heart failure has experienced breath being stifled.  That’s akin to what sin and death has done to our natural life on earth.  Even though God has breathed into us the breath of life, it is shorted by disease, and robbed from us by death.  But the Spirit breathes into us the true life, even as we can identify with the words, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off,” (Ezek. 37:11) so the Holy Spirit breathes into us and makes us alive through Jesus’ resurrection.

And we also hear how that Breath of God is a Voice which goes out to every nation in the second reading (Acts 2:1-21).  Don’t get caught up on the sudden way these Galileans were able to speak in many human languages; the focus is on what they heard from this Voice of God:

17 “ ‘And in the last days it shall be,

God declares,

that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,

and your sons and your daughters

shall prophesy…

21   And it shall come to pass

that everyone who

calls upon the name of the

Lord shall be saved.’

That’s what happened to the hearers on Pentecost, that Jews and proselytes from diverse countries from as west as Rome to the east as Persia, north as modern day Turkey (Asia Minor) to south as Arabia—Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live.” (Ezek. 37:9).  All of these people, from many nations, many things distinguishing them from each other, were called by the Holy Spirit to believe and have life from the world’s Savior.

This is the ongoing work of Pentecost.  It’s not about being overtaken by the Spirit, suddenly speaking in new tongues.  It’s that all people are called to salvation in Jesus Christ, so that at the end of the age, we will see what Revelation 7 records:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and [tongues], standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Taking a cue from the excitement of that day, the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in 1906 marked the arrival of the Pentecostal movement, teaching that we should continue to look for the Holy Spirit to revive the church by causing people to speak in strange languages and manifest miraculous healings.   The prompting for revivals like the Pentecostal movement was because leaders saw the signs of the end times, and yet despite that it seemed faith had grown cold, and separated from the zeal recorded in Acts.  Their response was to look for miraculous healings, and sudden conversion experiences.  The trouble is while God gave this visible sign of what He is doing, He doesn’t promise that this will always be the case.

The things Jesus assures His of are described in the Gospel:

26 “But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me. 27 And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning.

The word for Helper is literally Paraclete, an advocate who is called to one’s side to assist them, especially in a court of law.  Well, as we heard last week, testimony, or martyria, is how the world around us learns of Christ.  Jesus said this in the Upper Room with His disciples on the night in which He was betrayed.  The Holy Spirit, the Comforter, testifies of the Son of God.  Then, in turn, some of the Twelve (and later St. Paul) would be testify of Him—in the Scriptures of the New Testament, all written by or under the guidance of these chosen men.

But the Son must ascend into heaven before sending the Holy Spirit.  This is the start of the age of the Church, where the eternal life and salvation which Christ has brought for all people, is proclaimed with His almighty power.  It isn’t limited to a small group or a certain place, but that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:47)  And this is what the Holy Spirit does among all people where His Voice is heard:

And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; 10 concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; 11 concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.

12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.

Nowhere do you hear that the Holy Spirit will cause flashy signs as were on the day of Pentecost.  He does what the Word of God is given to do: convict people of their unbelief in the only Savior, righteousness as the only one worthy to ascend into heaven, and judgment that the Devil has been defeated.  These are the mighty deeds which the people in Jerusalem heard, and which you, too have heard.

You see, the Holy Spirit doesn’t ever focus on Himself, but teaches us to rightly know Jesus as our Savior. He calls us spiritually dead sinners to repentance, teaches us to truly know the Lord, comes to us in our struggles and weakness and guides us out of our error and into all the truth.

The Holy Spirit’s work has continued uninterrupted in the Church, even to our day, because sinners like you and me are called to believe in Jesus Christ, living by the promise, “Everyone who calls on the Name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21).  By this Gospel, good news, the work is accomplished that we know the Lord, that the same Holy Spirit keeps us in this faith in our trials, and actually strengthens our faith through what we suffer.  And then on the Last Day, we await when the Holy Spirit will raise us from our graves and our eyes will behold an amazing thing: 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” (1 Thess. 4:16-18)

So be it, Lord, through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord and Savior.  Amen.

Sunday after the Ascension (7th Sunday of Easter)

Readings: Acts 1:12-26 | 1 John 5:9-15 | 1 John 5:9-15

Text: 1 John 5:9-15

Last week, we heard some powerful words from St. John, in his first Epistle: This is he who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree.”  Of course, all of God’s Word is powerful, but this stands out because of this word: testimony.

Testimonies are legal records, something which make the difference between a truth being judged as having merit or not.  This is so important that the Lord included it in His Law: “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” (Deut. 19:15)  So that we might better understand how important testimonies are, it also says, “no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness.” (Num. 35:30)  Testimonies are a matter of life and death.

So what life and death matter is before us? Who Jesus is, and whether He is Savior we believe Him to be.  “This is He whom came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not only by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the One who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify…and these three agree.”   Rarely in human courts will you find three witnesses who agree, because people are fraught with faulty memory and blind spots, and our intentions and biases cloud our ability to be objective and impartial.  But not so with God.  God the Holy Spirit does not lie—in fact, you can actually say that He is incapable of lying.  God is Almighty, but He cannot lie.  Yet we’re not just given His testimony about Jesus.  His testimony is corroborated by the water and the blood.

31 Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. 32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.” (John 19:31-34)

What does this testimony mean?  That this Man Jesus, rejected by the Jews, executed by Gentiles, and pierced by an unwitting soldier—is the Christ whom God promised and the One who has brought life and salvation to the human race.

Yet John continues in the Epistle reading today: “If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son.”  Here, first of all this refers to Moses, who was a human witness to the Word of God.  This came up in Jesus’ discussion about testimony with the Jews recorded in John 5, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?”

But it’s true that the testimony of God is always greater than any man.  Men are fallible.  And if our faith was based on the testimony of men, then it would be flimsy indeed.  The First reading today from Acts 1:12-26 hits on that point.  Judas, one of the Twelve, gave up his share in being an apostle and allied with the Lord’s enemies.  In gruesome detail, his fall is described. Yet, just because Judas failed doesn’t mean the ministry does.  That’s because the testimony of God is greater and more sure.  Even St. Peter, who, you’ll remember, betrayed the Lord in his own way, later taught the Church, “We ourselves…were with Him on the holy mountain [of Transfiguration]. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place.” (2 Pet. 1:18-19 ESV 2001)  More sure than the testimony of any man is that of God Himself.

Another place this hits us is if you look outside at the name of our congregation: Bethlehem Lutheran Church.  One day a few months ago, I had two different people bring up their alarm that our Church body bears the name of Martin Luther. They had each heard some pretty damaging stuff about what Luther said and because of that, they were suspicious what such a church would teach.  Their point is well-taken.  Well, it’s the unfortunate result of history that our forefathers in the Reformation allowed the first distinguishing name, Evangelical (that is, the Gospel-preaching Church) to fall into disuse.  But amid the other teachers who were spouting off different things in the 16th century—Zwingli, Calvin, Menno Simons—there had to be some kind of distinction.  But know this: Our confession of faith is not called Lutheran because we hold Martin Luther to some exalted status.  Luther said a lot of stuff, much of it under the influence of too much Wittenberg beer.  He wrote pieces like “On the Jews and Their Lies” which was later taken up by Adolf Hitler as justification for his Holocaust.  Luther was often a potty-mouthed, vindictive fellow, and thoroughly a sinner just like the rest of us.

But this isn’t the testimony in which we put our faith.  We revere Luther because of his labors to direct the Church back to the true testimony of God, Holy Scripture.  Where he did this, we honor Matin Luther as a gifted doctor of the Church.  That’s where the reading on Reformation Day from Revelation 14 equates him with the angel who proclaims an eternal gospel to the whole world (Rev. 14:6-7).  But he was no messenger of God where he so often was guilty of setting fires ablaze with his tongue and one out of whose mouth came much cursing. Neither Luther, nor St. Paul, nor any man is any worth to us, but instead that we would cling to Christ who alone is our Teacher and Savior. 

The fact remains, though, that this testimony of God, is lived out by men and women, small and great, publicly and privately.  I haven’t told you yet, but the word for testimony here is the root word for “martyr.”  When we hear martyr, bloodshed is the first thing that comes to mind (maybe that just comes from our fascination with extreme cases).  In fact, every follower of Christ gives martyria—testimony or witness by their life of faith.   The truth that Jesus was born, lived and died as the sinner’s substitute, and rose again would be of no value if that was not witnessed by those who still follow Him.  It is witnessed in word, deed, and example.

10 Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself.”  What is the testimony?  That Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners and give them eternal life.  We are made witnesses, and living out that faith is the testimony which the world around us sees.  As our lives reflect Christ’s teaching and Christ’s living, they see what the Spirit, the water, and the blood first testified to.  One example is what St. Peter describes in chapter 2 of his first epistle,

13 Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

18 Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. 19 For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. 20 For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Pet. 2:13-23)

This kind of godly submission is a continuation of our Lord’s own life through you, and it is a witness that God uses to display His works in the world.  The world, the devil, and our flesh hate that testimony.  They badmouth it and consider those fools who hold to it. Underneath the abrasive front, they don’t like what that testimony means, because “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” (John 3:19-20) It means defeat for the devil, death of the old sinful flesh, and that the world must acknowledge Jesus (not us, and not any man) to be Lord of all.  And it’s on that point where some of the witnesses of Jesus have been called to be martyrs in the sense of giving up their lives.  The world did not want their example, their charity, their contrast to the works of darkness.  So, the world gives them the worst punishment it can exact: Death.  The trouble is, the world and the devil have already tried that on God’s Son, Jesus Christ—and it was to their own undoing!  So even being on the receiving end of the worst wrath of unbelievers, the martyr is blessed because God can and does restore all, and restores it perfectly and forever.

If you reject the testimony which God has given concerning His Son, you’re left with the dead things of this world. But with the world you also inherit fear and hopelessness.  This can be seen in every church body that tries to hold onto the title Christian but dismantles the Word of God looking for distinction between man’s word and God’s Word.  The present world leads them about, and dictates what they hope for.  They are afraid because they’ve lost what is certain, but busy, lest they find out their work has been in vain.

And this is the place each of us would be in, if it were not for the protection and power of God’s Holy Spirit.  His testimony is more than lifeless record that we are left to decide.  He is the One who calls us by this same testimony, creates faith, preserves and strengthens it, and promises, “that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Phil. 1:6)

Yes, this is the testimony, proclaimed by prophets and apostles, and written for us:

12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. 13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.

Having heard this Word of our God, let us pray:

Lord Jesus, You promised that when we are dragged before kings and governors for the sake of Your name, You will give us a mouth of wisdom to bear witness to Your saving grace. Give us courage in these gray and latter days to proclaim the Gospel, even in the face of those who do not accept our testimony of You; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. (prayer for July 26) Amen.

Sixth Sunday after Easter

Readings: Acts 10:34–48 | 1 John 5:1–8 | John 15:9–17

Text: John 15:9-17

Today’s Gospel lesson is a challenge for Lutherans, who so heavily stress that we are saved by grace through faith, not a result of works [Eph. 2:8-9].  But it’s challenging not only Lutherans, but anyone who confesses that the Lord loves us unconditionally and that the Gospel is ours unconditionally. That’s because the plain English meaning of today’s text is that the love of Jesus has conditions: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” “You are my friends, if you do what I command you.” That word “if” burns in our ears with uncertainty because we want to know if it’s all up to us or even part way.  It might be somewhat comforting to hear that the Greek ties the “if” condition to what Jesus does as well. But you got to know you’re Greek pretty well to argue that. And how is everyone else supposed to know? Besides, our Epistle lesson uses the same condition. “By this we know that we are the children of God, when we love God and obey His commandments.” (1 John 5:2)

However, the great counter to the argument that God’s gift of Christ and our place in God’s family is conditional, is also found in the Gospel lesson: “You did not choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit” Fruit like keeping commandments, loving the Lord, and receiving the Gospel. So, what is the Lord teaching? Two truths, both of which we need to uphold? A text that makes more sense when we look at it closer? The answer is: yes.

I’d like you to have the text handy in your bulletin or on page 902 in the pew Bible. Remember, last week we heard John 15, verses 1-8. And Christ the Vine is still the context. Abiding in Jesus and bearing fruit all stems (pun intended) from Jesus’ resurrection given to us. Faith clings to Jesus. Jesus, given by the Gospel proclaimed, by the forgiveness of sin, by Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. And that’s where we are to remain, because it’s only in Him that we have life.

Verse 9 continues that thought: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” Where is the Father’s love shown to Jesus? In the resurrection of His Son. That’s where we abide in Christ as well. But then Jesus says in verse 10: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” That’s the “if” statement that throws us off. Because we stop thinking resurrection, and start thinking about what obedience we must render again. Because what else does it mean to keep Jesus’ commandments?  Aren’t they just like the Commandments which tell us what to do and not do?

But keep doesn’t mean something so narrow as obey. It’s bigger. A better definition is ‘to treasure.’ Because treasuring means you hold it close, you consider it valuable, you treat it with care. ‘Obey,’ conveys none of those things. But ‘obey’ would be implied if we treasure Jesus’ commandments. They aren’t to be ignored, that’s for sure. But is that the condition we must meet in order to abide in Jesus’ love?

Take another look. The sentence doesn’t end with our keeping, but the Son’s: If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.  The conditions that have to be met include Jesus keeping His Father’s commandments and Jesus’ abiding in the Father’s love, which He has done. In fact, it is finished. Remember, He is the Vine, we’re His branches. He has already produced the fruit and “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.” (Jn. 15:3) And it’s Jesus who keeps the commandments in us. He cuts off the dead works of the Old Adam in us, burns it in the fire.  Then, the True Vine causes His fresh growth to sprout up, and renewal in us treasures what Jesus says.

As the Father has loved me,

so have I loved you.

Abide in my love.

10 If you keep my commandments,

you will abide in my love,

just as I have kept my Father’s


and abide in his love.

“These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” If abiding on Christ depended on our obedience to these commands, then Jesus speaking them to us could hardly fill, much less give us any joy. They would just be another Law that the old, sinful flesh in us could never keep. It would be another place we would fall short [Rom. 3:23].

The fact that Jesus says that His words deliver His joy is important. It completely upends what the word ‘commandment’ typically means to us. We’re trained by life and our sinful flesh to think of commandments as edicts given from above and the rests on our shoulders to do it.  This is why a doctrine of works-righteousness either ends in pride or despair: pride for those who are at the top of their game, but despair for the one who sees their own failure and is without hope.

But commandment as our Lord uses it here, rather than holding a high and holy bar which we must meet, is a commandment gives the very thing it says. Think of when the Lord had Ezekiel command the bones in the dry valley to live (Ezek. 37:1-14).  In the same way, Jesus commands us from death to life. Jesus commands us resurrection. And the resurrection is our joy.

Now, before we move on, we need to remember what godly joy is.  It is not the absence of sadness. Joy is not the absence of pain. Joy is not the absence of emptiness. Jesus felt all those things on His cross. And, as Hebrews tells us, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:2) And just like Jesus, we can feel more than one thing at the same time. So, even in the face of the greatest loss we can still believe, the joy of the resurrection is still there in you, filling you up to the top with His hope.

But then what do we do with verse 12? “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” We know that elsewhere Jesus says the two greatest commandments are to love God, and love neighbor. But that’s not the same thing Jesus says here. We’re so used to it, that we just fill it in. Here, love isn’t demand for obedience, love is the result. In verse 17, it’s the same thing. Because the commandment here is life. The commandment here is forgiveness of sin. The commandment here is the gift of Jesus out of His death and resurrection.

It has been spoken. It has happened. Jesus died on that cross as your substitute. And Jesus rose from the dead on the third day as the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep [1 Cor. 15:20] For your resurrection is next. And as a result of what Jesus has done and given to you, now you truly can love one another. And not just the love we see ordinarily—a love which loves those who love in return—but the same self-sacrificial love with which Jesus loved us with. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” It’s not simply that Jesus is commanding us more and harder things than Moses did.  That would be servanthood.  You are my friends when what I command is fulfilled in you and done by you.

Now it all makes sense when Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.” This is what Jesus has been saying to His disciples all along. It’s the same thing John says in our Epistle lesson when he writes, “For this is the love of God, [namely] that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome. For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.” (1 John 5:3)

Jesus speaks, and it happens.  He speaks, and our sin is taken away. He speaks and our death is reversed. Jesus speaks and we are given eternal life. That commandment, coming from the Vine who gives us life, fills us up with joy! This is our joy no matter what else we’re feeling along with it. Abiding in Him and His love, having His joy within us, loving one another sacrificially, being called friends of God—it’s all accomplished through Him!  Never let someone convince you that somehow being obedient enough will fulfill Christ’s conditions. The conditions have already been completed: It is finished. We treasure His commands because that’s where our life is, our the strength of our walk, the love we have for even our enemies.  It’s always from Jesus, and so to Him be the glory forever.  Amen.

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 8:26–40 | 1 John 4:1–21 | John 15:1-8

Hymn of the Day: LSB 540 Christ, the Word Incarnate

Text: John 15:1-8

If last Sunday has the popular name, Good Shepherd Sunday, then perhaps a good name for this would be “Christ the Vine Sunday.”  Today, the picture of a vine growing and branching out gives us a complete picture of Christ with His Church.  Far from the human idea that the Church is just an association of likeminded people or (as atheists say) those who are gullible enough to share a myth.  The Church is the living witness of the living Christ, against whom even the gates of hell could not prevail.

Christ is with His Christians, and His Christians are with Him.  What an amazing thought, and it reassures a believing heart who has trusts what He says, “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20)

Yet with Christ described as the True Vine, and we as the branches, there are also some serious lessons here:

First, our Lord tells us, “every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”  It’s easy to measure our life by how many good things are happening to us, and how we are able to help others.  When hard times happen, we pray that they would quickly pass, so we can get back to having a good life and being able to be useful.

But then our Father the vinedresser comes in and messes up our plans.  Family drama comes in and wrecks a holiday meal.  We have great plans to help out a friend, and it gets thrown to the wind because of illness.  Just when everything seems to be settling down, we find out the cancer has come back…again.  God! Why would you let these things keep happening?  We might want to exonerate God and blame the devil instead, but does that mean God was sleeping on the job and missed what was going on?

“Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”  It’s not that the devil for a moment won the wrestling match over your life, or that God is punishing you for something.  You are a branch in the True Vine of Christ, and those fruitful vines—according to His wisdom—He prunes.  It doesn’t make immediate sense, but pruning actually stimulates new and healthier growth.

The paradox of the Christian is that trials actually produce a stronger faith and more fervent love for the Lord and love for others.  The country club notion of church will tell you we come together to be reminded of our values, sing songs we like together, and keep ourselves on the straight and narrow so that no disaster happens to us.  But, mysteriously, it’s actually among sinners who are pressed hard that God is at work making His Church grow.  Both St. Paul and St. James describe this in their epistles:

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Rom. 5:3-5)

And, Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)

It’s through the trials, the setbacks, the weakness that God our Father makes us grow in Christ.  It may be our pride needs to be humbled, or our trust needs to be firmed up, or we need to be more merciful toward others or be the recipients of charity.  Whatever His purpose, He is the One who is always in control, directing what happens, “working all things for good for those who are called according to His purpose,” [Rom. 8:28] and preparing His Christians to bear more fruit.

The Lord picked this image of a vine for a reason.  Grapevines are not trees.  Trees, you want to grow tall and sturdy.  That’s the image at work in Psalm 1, “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.” (v. 3)  But old growth on grapevines does not bear fruit.  Only the year-old branches which have been pruned and been through a season will produce fruit.  That’s the lesson here: That we must be pruned and tended diligently by God to bear fruit for Him.

This fruit is only possible through Christ.  So, He continues in the Gospel,

Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.

So, we’ve heard what God the Vinedresser is able to accomplish in the vines of His Son—those who have their life from Christ in the saving waters of Baptism and the nourishment which His Body and Blood gives.  This is what it means to be “clean because of the Word that I have spoken to you.”  But it’s also possible that on account of the trials and temptations of life, or an unhealthy fascination with what we think are acceptable fruits—that we are no longer abiding in the Vine. 

“Apart from me you can do nothing” – What a harsh absolute statement!  But it’s true.  Branches don’t live on their own.  Anyone who’s cut flowers or had a fresh Christmas tree knows this. Neither can someone remain a Christian without abiding in Christ.  This isn’t as simple as considering what we do, as if to say all you need to do is go to church to remain a Christian.  Yet at the same time, He warns us,  If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

Whoever willfully refuses to abide in Christ is in deadly danger!  But very few of us would actually say we’re refusing to abide in Christ.  Sometimes it’s believing in some idea of Jesus without hearing what His Word says or retranslating it through your own standards.  Other times it takes the form of avoiding the assembly of believers because of human disagreements.  Still other times, it’s being so enamored with being busy with good works that you don’t know or care what the church teaches.  With all of these, there is the risk of a fate worse than death: not abiding in Christ, of being cut off and thrown into the fire and burned.  Even if you consider yourself a Christian, if you do not abide in Christ through faith, you will go to hell.

Here the picture of the vine is also helpful, because the old growth is incapable of producing fruit.  That is, someone whose faith has not be exercised by trials, and someone who considers that they’re a Christian because they’ve grown up in church.  Old, barky growth does not produce the fruits of faith, and it must be pruned or taken away to be burned.

So our Lord is reminding and admonishing us because we are His living branches.  He teaches us to expect the trials as the means of our bearing much fruit, and He warns us about the dangers of complacency.

But now hear the great joy for His well-tended, fruitful branches:

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.

What joy there is in not only having a fiction of Christ, but having the Lord Himself with His Word!  That person who abides with simple trust in His Word has these great blessings!  For starters, He gives us a clean heart before Him, but then adds to that the privilege of prayer!  How great would it be if there was a group of people on earth who had access to the King of Creation? These, who could appeal to Him on behalf of those who have forsaken the faith, who could ask Him not just for private benefits but for the calling of all people and carried out in the mission of the Church; who, seeing the twisted direction of our age would not simply ask for a return to the good-old-days, but for His Kingdom to be victorious over all the powers of darkness in the present age.

And that is precisely what Jesus is saying His Christians are.  As Christ abides in us and we in Him, God is glorified by the fruits His people bear.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.”  In this Christian Church is where genuine love is made known.  We abide in the forgiveness of sins—ours and those whom we also forgive.  We abide in God’s love for all people of every nation, appearance, class, and ability.  We abide in Christ, whose authority over heaven and earth is able to make disciples of all, and bring the branches of His living Vine through the temporal trials to eternity He has prepared for us.  Amen.