Commemoration of St. Thomas

Readings: Ephesians 4:7, 11-16 | John 20:24-29

Text: John 20:24-29

Who was St. Thomas and why is he remembered?

Thomas was one of the apostles. In the lists of the Apostles in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), Thomas is paired with Matthew, so perhaps when they were sent out in twos (Matthew 10:5-6), they travelled together.

John gives us more of a personal story of Thomas. The first time, he is introduced as, “Thomas, called the Twin” or Didymus (john 11:16). There are a total of three accounts that involve Thomas in John’s Gospel, and it’s the last one which gets the most attention. Thomas has gained such a reputation that his name as become associated with doubt. This label goes back even to the time of the Reformation, as Albrecht Durer, who carved this woodcut for his Small Passion series (c. 1510), named it “Doubting Thomas.”

Application

Let’s look at all of them together, so that we can better appreciate Thomas, one Jesus’ Twelve.

11 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” 13 Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, 15 and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (John 11:11-16)

Lazarus’ death is a teaching moment for the disciples of Jesus, including the Apostles. Our Lord calls the end of Lazarus’ grave illness “sleep” because this is an enemy which He is about to conquer. Most Israelites saw death as a prison, calling it Sheol, but Jesus had come to release such prisoners. Once He explains clearly that Lazarus has died, notice Thomas’ bold confession! If Jesus can undo even death, then let us go and treat it playfully as a temporary condition—to fear the grave as little as we fear going to sleep!

Later, in the Upper Room, as Jesus is giving His farewell sermon, our Lord says,

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:1-6)

Thomas is not afraid to ask the question which nags at all of us as we hear these words. He’s just said such an incredible thing, that He goes to prepare a place in His Father’s house. Then, Jesus says we know the way. But do we really? How can we be sure? Let me have detailed instruction, lest I get lost and lose such a precious reward!  Thomas’ question prompts the Lord Jesus to clarify saying that He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Just as much as He is the Resurrection, displayed in Lazarus (John 11:25-26).

Thomas, through honest questioning, has learned that Jesus is the Master over the grave, the sure and certain way to eternal life with God. Yet, he has also seen his Lord betrayed, cruelly tried, and brutally crucified, dead, and buried. Come the evening of that first day of the week, Thomas as a lot to put together. Has the grave in fact swallowed the Lord up? Did we set our hopes too high?

24 Now Thomas, one of the twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”
26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:24-29)

If we only focus on one apparent failure of Thomas, we end up doing what the world does with its forefathers right now. All of their contributions are reduced to the one fact that they owned slaves, for instance. Same with Thomas, that he is caricatured as “Doubting Thomas.”  Better not be a “doubting Thomas” and with that label, envelop the whole person, and dismiss his desire for certainty.

Each account of Thomas is about faith and the certainty of what one believes. He can boldly go to death with Lazarus, knowing that Jesus is its victor. He can be sure that he Jesus will bring him and all who believe to the Father to dwell in the House of the Lord forever [Ps. 23:6].

Maybe St. Thomas was the first Lutheran, because he was concerned about certainty in his faith and the message he was being sent out to preach. That’s a distinguishing mark of the Evangelical Reformation: Rather than speculating about what God may or may not think, the ways the Lord may be moving members of His Church, the process for the soul after death, or whether departed saints can pray with us or for us—Lutherans are bound to the clear Word of God, to receive it by faith.  Does it say, “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved” and “this promise is for you and for your children” and that Baptism is “a circumcision made without hands…having been buried…[and] also raised with him through the powerful working of God”?[1] Then we will baptize even our infants because we trust the Lord’s saving work in Christ for them.  Does the Lord say to the repentant thief, “Today you will be with me in paradise”?[2] Then we will not entertain any talk of purgatory for extra purification over and above the blood of Christ which was shed for us. Does the Scripture says, “Truly no man can ransom another” and “There is one Mediator between God and man, the Man Christ Jesus”?[3] Then we will only pray to the Triune God and not put our hope in Mary or any other servant of God.

What does St. Thomas teach us at Advent?

Advent is a time for Christians to meditate on the first coming of our Lord, and to ask the question, “O Lord, how shall I meet you?” (LSB 334) when He comes again in glory. The End Times are again a place for certainty and confidence. As St. John would later write, “So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17 By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.” (1 John 4:16-17) Let us not get swept away in the fantastical speculations of so many teachers who trouble believers with talk of invisible comings of Christ, rapture, rebuilding an earthly temple, and Armageddon. Let us follow the example of Thomas, who firmly believed the Lord’s Word and wanted to have confidence in it for himself and his hearers. As your pastor, that is my aim and what I delight in too. Stick with the clear words of Jesus, for “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed…[for] these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:29, 31)

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.


[1] Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38-39; Colossians 2:9-12

[2] Luke 23:43

[3] Psalm 49:7; 1 Timothy 2:5

Fourth Sunday in Advent

~ Rorate Coeli ~

Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-19 | Philippians 4:4-7 | Luke 1:39-56

Text: Philippians 4:4-7

“The Lord is at Hand For You”

Intro: It formed the theme for last Sunday, and now here it is again: Rejoice in the Lord always. Today focuses heavily on the reason for rejoicing in all circumstances: The Lord is at hand.

1. The Lord is at hand…to judge.

a. His nearness is not good news in and of itself: 32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” (Matt. 24:32-33) The Lord’s imminent return is not good news for the unbelieving.

b. Jesus was near to Peter when he denied his Lord and Jesus’ gaze caused Peter to weep. (Luke 22:58-62) The Word that Jesus had spoken caused bitter tears.

c. He is near even when you are purposely overriding your conscience and doing what you know isn’t right. In these moments, we put on a mockery of the life of faith, using the Lord’s patience as an excuse to gratify our flesh. Remember the bitter tears of Peter, and repent.

> The nearness of His condemnation of our unbelief isn’t His ultimate goal. His desire is to put our Old Adam, with all his rebellion and wickedness to death. Instead of judgment, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18) The Lord is at hand.

II. The Lord is at hand…for His people.

a. The Lord’s nearness had caused the people to tremble at the foot of Sinai. “Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.” (Deut. 18:16) So the Lord sent Moses and Aaron as His representatives. He promised to once again draw near in the Prophet who would bear His Word (Old Testament reading, Deut. 18:15-19).

b. Elizabeth and Mary recognized the nearness of the Lord. Even the infant John recognized it and rejoiced inside Elizabeth! It was not just a thoughtful reminder, but it was embodied in the infant in Mary’s womb.

c. This is the comfort of the Lord being at hand for you, bringing His mercy and salvation. The Israelites hoped for this Prophet, Elizabeth and her baby leapt, Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord and her spirit rejoices in God her Savior.

The Lord is at hand with His Word and in His flesh.

III. The Lord is at hand…for you.

a. Though we rightly deserve His displeasure for our denials, our weakness, and our unfaithfulness, the Lord Jesus Christ was born to save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:23). The Lord is at hand to save you.

b. The nearness of the Lord is not just a cognitive device to calm our minds. It’s a truth which our faith clings to, and a peace which is delivered by the Holy Spirit through God’s Word. The Lord is at hand to give you peace.

c. And it’s a reality that as often as we forget or push away the nearness of the Lord, we look for peace in the wrong place. We try to find it in our understanding and how well we manage our life and relationships. This can only give us a passing, human peace.

d. In that false belief, we think the Lord is far away. I’m suffering, and He’s somewhere else. His congregation is hurting and He is idly looking on. Our world is wandering into darkness, and He must just be fed up with us.

e. But our Lord does not simply stand by waiting for us to “figure out the right thing to do.” He is active in our lives, to break our confidence in our understanding, our own proud accomplishments. And that illusion of self-made peace we give up in repentance, God fills us with peace that no man could ever dream of.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Because it is true the Lord is at hand, cast your cares on Him; seek His help in prayer; praise Him for the abundant good He does for you, and enjoy a peace which surpasses that of our thoughts. Rejoice in the Lord at all times, for “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble…The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” (Psalm 46:1, 11) In the Name + of Jesus.

Amen.

Commemoration of Nicasius and Eutropia, Martyrs

Text: Romans 12:14-21, Luke 6:27-36

as seen in Wikipedia

Who was Nicasius?

Nicasius was a bishop in Rheims, on the frontier of the Roman empire. This area had a Christian presence dating back to 260 AD.

In the new year’s eve of 407, a horde of Barbarians crossed the frozen Rhine River. To the Roman inhabitants of Gaul, it was called the Barbarian invasion. They sacked cities along the way.

Bishop Nicasius was said to have had a vision concerning this invasion, and he warned the people about it. They asked him if they should take up arms, but Nicasius responded, “Let us abide the mercy of God and pray for our enemies. I am ready to give myself for my people.”

When the Vandals arrived at the gate of the city, Nicasius attempted to slow them so that more citizens could escape. He met the advancing army with his companions: Jucundus, his lector, Florentius, his deacon, and Eutropia, his virgin sister. The Vandal army put him and his companions to death at his altar or the door of his church, while he was praying from Psalm 119: Adhæsit pavimento anima mea: Vivifica me secundum verbum tuum. “My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word!” (Ps. 119:25)

The legends have it that after the death of Nicasius, the Vandals were so scared, they left the area and left their plunder behind.

Application

Our Lord says, 27 But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

St. Paul writes to the children of God:

“17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

How can Jesus say such a thing? How can it be that God’s instruction would be to roll over against the force of those who hate us?

These are hard words for us, because it doesn’t seem right or fair. Our world tells us to demonize those who hate or abuse us (or sometimes even just trouble us). Take away their power by whatever means necessary, destroy their reputation, seize their assets, remove them from memory.

But who was Nicasius, a bishop to take up arms? What chance did they have against this advancing army when the Romans soldiers had retreated to deal with other invaders? His priority was to save civilian lives…and the souls of the enemies.

Yes, the lives of his enemies. The lives of your enemies are precious in God’s sight. The life of the one who abandoned you, who hurt you, who cheated you in court. Their life is just as precious as yours to God. No matter how much the image of God has been smeared over by the filth of evil, God still priced their life with the precious blood of Christ.

6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:6–10)

When we see those who are our enemies as human beings loved by God, rather than seeking to be rid of them, we see ourselves as witnesses to God who has had mercy on us.

When the Vandals crossed the Rhein, it was not just their armies. It was also their women and children—their families with them. They were fleeing for their lives against a ruthless invading force that had forced them out of their homes—the Huns. For the past 30 years, the Huns had been wreaking havoc on the Germanic peoples and forcing them as refugees into the Eastern Roman empire. This doesn’t excuse their actions of killing an unarmed bishop and his attendants, or robbing from the people of Gaul. But rather, as Nicasius said, “Let us abide the mercy of God and pray for our enemies.” For that is what God, who rules over the nations, who desires the salvation of the nations, has commanded us.

So, who are our enemies today? Woke idealogues? Democrats or republicans? Abortionists? Illegal immigrants? Do we take a cue from the world and demonize the people who belong to these movements, dehumanizing them?

Instead, let us entrust our lives to our Lord, who 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. 2:23) And see those who set themselves against us not according to their sins (3If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? 4But with you there is forgiveness; therefore you are feared.” Psalm 130:3–4), but according to God’s mercy shown to His enemies, His power to convert them, and to save them from the coming judgment.

Let Nicasius and his companions remind us this Advent that Christ came into the world to save all people, and that His desire now is that disciples be made of people from every nation. In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

Commemoration of Ambrose of Milan

Readings: Ephesians 3:8-12 | John 10:11-16

Text: Ephesians 3:8-12

Who was Ambrose? What led the Church to remember him?

Aurelius Ambrosius was born in 339 to a Roman Christian family in Gaul in modern-day Germany.

His father was a praetorian prefect, or high-ranking administrator for the province. Ambrose was set to follow in his father’s footsteps, going to school in Rome. He practiced law for a while, but in 370 was eventually appointed civil governor of Liguria and lived in the capital, Milan. He was a noteworthy statesman, good orator, and well-liked.

Four years later in 374, bishop Auxentius, an Arian, died in office. This controversy had been brewing since the council of Nicea. Arius’ teaching that Jesus was not true God had many adherents, especially in the court. There was a lot of controversy about who would follow him. The Nicene and Arian laity were fighting over this question, so much that Governor Ambrose had to step in. As he was addressing the crowd, the Nicene laity began to shout for his election as bishop, “Ambrose, bishop!” The Arians were okay with that, because Ambrose had treated them fairly.

Just one big problem. He was still a new Christian, an unbaptized catechumen with no theological training.  He fled from the meeting and hid at a colleague’s house. This colleague gave him up and within a week, Ambrose was baptized, ordained, and consecrated on December 7, 374.

He was faithful in his office, adopting an ascetic lifestyle, selling his property and providing for his sister. He had good favor with the people as governor, and now as bishop he was even more loved. This favor helped him in his future relations with government interaction.

Ambrose not only cared for his flock, but from his experience in the state, saw the need for the public welfare of the Church. He served as spiritual counselor to the next several western emperors. His goal was to forge an alliance with the Roman state to bolster the orthodox faith against Arianism, paganism, and Judaism.

He influenced Emperor Gratian to remove an altar to the goddess Victory from the Roman senate. He refused a later emperor’s wife’s demand to have Milan’s churches facilities used to garrison Gothic (Arian) troops. He resisted imperial influences on teaching and disciple within the Church, clearly articulating a proper division between church and state: “For the emperor is within the church, not above the church.”[1] He called Emperor Theodosius I to publicly repent in the streets of Milan after he massacred civilians in Thessalonica in retaliation for an imperial official’s murder.[2]

He also became a prominent theologian. Through his acumen and eloquence, Ambrose was instrumental in Augustine of Hippo’s conversion. He also authored the hymn which we just sang, Savior of the Nations Come, along with two others in our hymnal (874 and 890).

Application

It’s noticeable how unworthy and unprepared Ambrose was for the task that the Lord laid at his feet. Like St. Paul, he was a most unlikely candidate (save for being hostile to the Church).

To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, who created all things, 10 so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11 This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord

God’s work is not seen in the individuals and personalities of the saints He calls to service. This is a vain dream of our sinful heart which wants to be remembered and make a legacy for one’s self.  His work is to “bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages” which is made manifest in the Word of God.

You don’t have to be a bishop or preacher in order to share in this work of God. Parents do it very simply by reading the Bible with their children, teaching them to pray, modeling lives of devotion to the Lord. Friends do this by displaying the love of Christ and living in the joy of the Gospel, so that those who don’t believe or are conflicted can be guided by the light in you. Everyday Christians do this when they live their lives conscientiously—holding to life in a society that embraces death as a savior, honoring marriage in the midst of hedonism, knowing what is right in an age of moral relativism.

The Lord raised up Ambrose at a time of crisis in order to faithfully guide His Church. That’s what needed to happen for the good of God’s people in that place and time. He wasn’t thinking about how he would be remembered by history, how his eloquence would ripple to Augustine, and later to Martin Luther. Too often we are sold the idea that what we do must be exceptional, but that is to aggrandize ourselves. It is enough to love the Lord who has brought His Word to us, to love our neighbor who is right before us, and to pray for the Lord’s guidance and that He equip us for our various tasks.

What does Ambrose teach us about during the Advent season?

It’s an overwhelming thing to ponder the big picture—our country, our world, where things will go. Nevertheless, God has revealed to us the mystery that surpasses every other variable about this life: Christ is coming again in glory, and in the meantime, He rules at the Father’s right hand to accomplish His loving and saving purpose.

How do we take part in something so monumental? By bowing our hearts in prayer to Him, “Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him.”

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] Ambrose, Sermon Against Auxentius, 36

[2] Walker, Williston, “A History of the Christian Church” (4th ed.), pp. 159-160.

Growing in Faith

The Feast of St. Andrew

Text: John 1:35-42a

Who was Andrew? How is he remembered?

Andrew was the brother of Peter, first a disciple of John and moved by the words, “Behold, the Lamb of God.”

Although he was the first to believe, he wasn’t as impetuous as his brother. The two of them were called together at some point after this initial meeting (Matt. 4:18-22)

His mark on in the Gospel narratives is only pointing out the boy with five loaves and two fish at the Feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:8-9) and being among the four who asked Jesus about the destruction of the Temple (Mark 13:3-4).

Later tradition says he was a missionary around the Black Sea. Died in Patras, Achaia in the 60’s. Legend says that he was crucified on an X-shaped cross, which is why he is pictured with the two beams of wood. Owing to the tradition of his wide travels, Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, which is why the flag bears a white cross on a blue field.

Application

Almighty God, by Your grace the apostle Andrew obeyed the call of Your Son to be a disciple. Grant us also to follow the same Lord Jesus Christ in heart and life, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

John the Evangelist provides the background of how Andrew first came to learn of Jesus.

18 While walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon (who is called Peter) and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. 19 And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” 20 Immediately they left their nets and followed him. (Matt. 4:18-20)

His call to be an apostle is not the impulsive, hasty “get out of the boat” moment that people make it out to be. He learned from Jesus, first calling Him “Rabbi,” but eventually telling his brother, “We have found the Messiah.”

Likewise, all disciples grow through the Word of God. We all start as babes on the “pure spiritual milk of God’s Word…[having] tasted that the Lord is good.” (1 Pet. 2:2) And over time with growth, we become ready for “solid food,” for “solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Heb. 5:14).

How has your walk been in following Jesus? Perhaps earlier you had misconceptions, underestimating Him. This misunderstanding may have led you to doubt.

What brings you from weak faith to better know Him, and more fervently follow Him, is hearing His Word in the crucible of life. Faith comes by hearing, but maturity comes through trials (Rom. 10:17; James 1:2). We need both.

The Lord knew this for Andrew, just as He did for Peter and all the apostles. The Lord directed Andrew’s growth though His questions and teaching, healing Peter’s mother-in-law (Mark 1:29-31), through his doubts in the crowd of 5,000, through the Messiah’s passion and resurrection and ascension. All of this prepared Andrew for what the Lord would do through him: preach the Gospel to the Gentiles of Scythia, Thrace, and Asia Minor.

What does Andrew teach us about during Advent?

The point for us is that every disciple starts somewhere which the Lord knows. According to His saving purpose, He calls us with His Gospel and enlightens us. As we answer His call and follow Him, Jesus causes us to better know Him, so that we can also tell others accurately about who He is—our Christ and theirs.

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.