Fifth Sunday of Easter

~ Cantate ~

Readings: Isaiah 12:1-6 | James 1:16-21 | James 1:16-25

Text: James 1:16-25

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!

From the moment we’re born and placed in our mother’s arms, we’re growing and learning. We learn from sights, sounds, and smells. We learn from things we do, and things that happen to us. At home, at school and work, and wherever we go, we learn from experience. Throughout our lives, we come to know more and more.

For all of the experiences we have in life, however, there is one thing that experience will not teach us. St. James writes, “Every good and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”  Through all of our days on this earth, experience can’t teach us how true this is. Experience will teach us that sometimes God is evil. He lets us suffer hurt and loss. He lets marriages break apart, leaving children caught in the middle. He doesn’t stop school shootings and Muslim extremists.

Experience alone will teach us that God is fickle, blessing us at some times and cursing us at others. What did I do to deserve this? How come my family is so messed up? Why can’t my job be easier or simpler? After working hard for so many years, why did I get laid off? We’re left to guess what God’s plan is, because we think it changes with His mood.

There’s only one way that God teaches us His unchanging goodness: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures.”  Our sinful birth into a sinful world can only give us a dim view of God. But, He has given us another birth by the word of truth, through the waters of Holy Baptism. The Lord says, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, unless one is born from above, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.”[1]  God has called us out of the darkness of experience and enlightened us by His Holy Spirit. Our experience in this world would deceive us, but the Word of truth enlightens us to know that He is not a cruel and moody Deity; He is an Almighty Father. He is our Father in heaven.

            More than that, He shows us that we are the firstfruits of His new creation—a new heavens and a new earth.[2]  There’s no denying that this life is broken and sickly. We are surrounded by evil and even see it at work within us. In Romans 8, St. Paul writes, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for…the redemption of our bodies.”[3]  Yes, this world is groaning, but because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have hope! This is what our Good, Perfect, and Unchanging God has given us. We have eternal birth in the Name of Jesus. We’re not left to grope in the dark to figure God out or what His plans are for us. He tells us plainly: I love you and I have made you my child forever.[4]

            So, we grow up in this life as God’s children. But this has nothing to do with age, since some become mature after many years. (I know a certain pastor who was confirmed at age 24.)  As we grow as God’s children, our heavenly Father teaches us about dangerous things to avoid:

Romans 16: “Watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.”[5]
Colossians 3: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”[6]
1 John 2:16-17: “All that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires.”

Our Father also teaches us what’s good to do:

Psalm 1: “Blessed is the man…[whose] delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”[7]
1 Thessalonians 5: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances”[8]
Ephesians 4: “Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ”[9]
Proverbs 31: “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”[10]

Therefore, James writes, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  Our heavenly Father wants us to be quick to learn how to live from Him. He also wants us to know where to look when we sin. Jesus says, “This is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life.”[11]

            Yet we would be deceived if we thought the Bible was nothing but a rule book. James says, “The anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”   People railing against other people, using God’s Word as a club, is not God’s will. God desires the righteousness of faith, and it’s never come by force or emotional manipulation. Too many churches believe that sermons are powered by a peppering of Bible verses and a guilt-driven appeal at the end. If this were all that Christianity had to offer, no wonder people “give up on religion.”

            God’s Word is also abused if His children become proud of their faithfulness. Indeed, the Lord says, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.”[12]  Jesus has this rebuke for diehard conservatives: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!”[13]Some become far too proud of how orthodox they’ve think they’ve been, but they neglect love, mercy, and humility.

            Instead of “trusting in ourselves as righteous and treating others with contempt,”[14] God teaches us about true righteousness. James writes, “Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”  None of our righteous living or confessing saves us, but Jesus does! He is God’s Righteous Man,[15] and His righteousness is a gift to you. “Receive with meekness the implanted Word, which is able to save your souls.”  God put it there in you. Various people have watered it—parents, pastors, and others—but “God gives the growth.”[16]  And in that way, as St. Paul also writes, “you gain Christ, and are found in Him, not having a righteousness of your own…but that which comes through faith in Christ.”[17]

            Finally, James sums up what it means to be a mature child of God—a child who is ready for confirmation—who confesses Jesus as Lord, God as his Father, and has the gifts of the Holy Spirit. “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.”  All through confirmation class, the students are called catechumens, which is Greek for a “hearer” of the Word.[18]  In being confirmed, the “hearers” echo back what they have heard from God. In Baptism, the Creed was spoken for you, and today, you will speak back the Creed. As a child, God’s Word was read to you, and now you take it to heart and read it for yourself. God’s Word has formed you to the degree that you are no longer merely hearer—a catechumen—but a doer of the Word.

            This is what it looks like to be a mature child of God. We began when He brought us forth by the Word of truth, we grew through receiving His implanted Word, and now we each continue as hearers and doers of His Word. And on such a life, God promises blessing: “The one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing.”

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

[1] John 3:3 – Truly, truly is Amen, amen

[2] Revelation 21:1

[3] Romans 8:22-23

[4] 1 John 3:1-3

[5] Romans 16:17

[6] 1 Peter 1:15-16

[7] Psalm 1:1-2

[8] 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18

[9] Ephesians 4:15

[10] Proverbs 31:8-9

[11] John 6:40

[12] Luke 11:28

[13] Matthew 23:23-24

[14] Luke 18:9

[15] Psalm 24:3-5

[16] 1 Corinthians 3:7

[17] Philippians 3:9

[18] From κατακούω, “hear and obey, give ear”

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Cantate – Sing

Readings: Isaiah 12:1–6 | James 1:16–21 | John 16:5–15

Text: James 1:16-21

The text is the epistle reading which we’ve heard where Saint James teaches the church, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

Over the past two years, and especially at various times before that, trust in various institutions and occupations has been greatly challenged.

Since the pandemic, we have lost our trust and our patience with one another and with businesses, with governments, with scientists, with media outlets.  And if we had trouble trusting them before the last two years, have only made it worse.

What this has done for us as Christians is that it has exposed—actually for all of society, I should say—is that it’s exposed our many idols.  It has reminded us of the fact that we should not “put our trust in princes in a son of man in whom there is no salvation.” (Ps. 146:3)  But, that we should fear, love and trust in God above all things, and any human agents that God appoints, are just as human as we are.

But that problem of trust, and that fear of being deceived can even creep into the church. It can be tested by greed, by pastoral abuse, by affairs that pastors fall into, or infighting within the church.  All of these things can lead us to conclude, even with people like Joseph Smith, “Which church should I join?”

In the midst of this human bog of deceit and changing opinions, God speaks. God does not lie. There is one place where we will never be deceived, and that is in His holy word.

There in the word of God, it’s like a sanctuary, a sanctuary from all the failures of the world of other people, and even of ourselves in the ways that we have been deceived and misled, even if it wasn’t into great shame and vice.  Even the little ones are enough.

His Word will never mislead us. It will never deceive us even if Satan should take portions of it and cherry pick it as he did in the wilderness [Matt. 4:1-11] when he tempted our Lord with the words of Psalm 91 but conveniently left out the part about, “guarding you in all your ways.”  God’s word will not mislead us, and it’s for that purpose he has given us his Holy Spirit so that we know him who is true. We know His Word. That is true.

And so, if there is one place in this world of disappointment and lies and deceit and just plain ignorance, we should be glad that there is one place where we can go a rock to which we can continually come where we will be fed, where we will drink pure spiritual milk of God’s word. How much should we delight in it and take this word to heart!  Especially when we’re disheartened by the things that we hear from scientists, from governments, from the media, and any other deceit, including any human.

“Do not be lead astray” is one of those chief aims of the Church.  The words that the Holy Spirit inspired James to write here are a letter to the church.

And while we have the word of God written for us, we are also sheep who are so easily lead astray.

1839 Methodist Camp Meeting

The past several months we’ve been studying several Restorationist movements of the 19th century, and in each of those movements there seems to be a common theme that they want to “just get back to the Bible.”  Whether it was Barton Stone wanting to just have no creed but the Bible, many were trying to boil things down to the word of God, but they ended up going in such a strange direction. Even William Miller, who many people followed, ended up giving birth to a number of other groups that reacted based on his false prediction of the end of the world.

But the Lord knows the needs of his sheep, and so he actually—in the midst of this potential mess of human teachers who could get the word wrong—and by the guidance of his Holy Spirit He does keep his sheep.  He tends them and nourishes them.  He leads them to the waters of eternal life.  What a paradox this is, that God uses men who are also fallible to accomplish this, entrusted with His Holy Word, so that by His Holy Spirit’s aid, we are not led into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.  God has preserved his church as he promised to [Matt. 16:18].

James continues, “Of His own will, he brought us forth by the Word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”

God has done that through his word.  He’s done that through his word in the 20th and 21st centuries just as much as he did in the 1st century.  Lest you think that our church today has more problems and more heresies, just read the book of Acts. Just read the annals of the early church and all of the heresies that they had to stamp out, which are refuted in the Nicene Creed.

But for our part, because it is the word of truth that gives us birth, we can be confident that our birth is from above.  It is from God. It is not just someone’s idea. It’s not that we’re holding to an antiquated idea or holding to some tradition, trying to hold with all of our might to see that it’s passed down to the next generation. This is God’s work. God worked through his word through the Holy Spirit whom Jesus has sent to his church.

And so, there’s also a reminder there because we are born of this word of truth that we have been brought forth, we have been birthed birth from above as Jesus taught Nicodemus in John 3:1-8.  The opposite of that is that we ourselves do it.  How can anyone give birth to himself?  It’s absurd.

It is not our strength. It is not our wisdom or our works that can save ourselves or others. Today, the church is troubled by many notions that it is just a human idea, and if other human philosophies come in, if wokeism is given free rein to our children or in our institutions.  Several years ago, I watched in a video from Bill Nye the Science Guy that stated he believed that Christianity will probably fade out in the next 100 years.  This view is held by many of the neo-atheists.

But the Gospel of our salvation is not a human work. It is not human effort that preserves the church. It is Jesus work, and so we hold to this.  We hold that it is not our works that save.  As Protestant Christians we say, “Of course our works don’t save.”  But sadly, I think that because we live in a time when Christianity is challenged by the wider culture and those who hold to the word of God have to work harder to hold to it, we think that something we must do—some business model, some clever explanation, some the next silver bullet, so to speak—is going to win the world for God.

And so, in light of that, James continues to say, “Know this my beloved brothers, let every person be quick to hear, slow, to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”

Sadly, we are very quick to speak, especially in our day when we have so many different platforms upon which to speak.  We’re happy to lend our opinion and our wisdom. But as Peter was reminded on the Mount of Transfiguration, there is a time to speak and a time to be silent [Ecclesiastes 3:7]: “[Peter] was still speaking when behold a bright cloud overshadowed them and a voice from the cloud said, this is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” (Matt. 17:5)

Man is all too happy to lend his opinion of the situation to lend his fixes.  God is the one who needs to speak to us first, and constantly, because of that tendency for us to be lead astray.

But another way that we try to help God out is by using the way that gets results on earth: the way of anger.  You know what’s really going to help Christ mission? A little manipulation, a little turning the screws, yelling at people will get results.

But this is not the way of God. Again, because the church is not a human institution, not a human idea. The gospel is not something that was cooked up by people in the 1st century.

God works righteousness through his word, and so Saint Paul writes to the Corinthians in his second book, Chapter 4, “But we have renounced, disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word. But by the open statement of the truth, we would commend ourselves to everyone, conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Cor. 4:2)

Wouldn’t it be easier if we did use the ways of the world?  Maybe the pews would be more packed.  They certainly seem to be at churches that turn God’s word into something else that it’s not, something that appeals to the current culture.

James writes to us in light of the fact that we are not to be deceived into thinking that the righteousness of God comes from us.  It comes from above from the father who does not lie or deceive.

He says, therefore, for our part, “Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”

The Lord’s instruction here is to turn our back on our old Adam, the sinful flesh that clings to us. Our sinful flesh doesn’t die easily.  It says back to God, “But I had such a good idea! Oh, I had such good intentions.  Doesn’t that make sense?” But God calls that evil. He says, as Saint Paul writes, “Put to death, therefore, what is earthly in you.”–lumping our ‘good intentions together with–“sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these things, the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked when you were living in them, but now you must put them all away.”

A Christian faith that is ruled by human error by the deceit of the devil by man, working by man fervent effort, is liable to fall because it has given up hoping in God to do his work, and thinks that somehow, someway, we do something or do all of it. But such a faith turns out to merely be a construct, a so-called theology.  What you will find under the surface is that rampant wickedness that filthiness and call it “freedom in the Gospel.”

Even if we find this at work in us, urging us on toward these things that “make sense” and give us what our itching ears want to hear, they only lead us to death. They will deceive us. But the Lord’s work in us is to put all of that away from us away from us. He puts our old Adam to death.

And then—only then—are we ready for the Lord to be the only one who can save us.  He is the only one who can sustain his church.  The only one who can help parents train their children in the way of the Lord, so that his testimonies are proclaimed from generation to generation.

So, if this is what the Lord says that He will do it for those who are not deceived, how do you explain the state of the church today?  One way to explain it is, of course, the unbelief that is well at work in people’s hearts and in the world.  The Lord tells us that his word is going to accomplish his work. But what do we see in churches?  That those who actually faithfully hold to his word seem to be on the verge of failure.  Why is it that the Orthodox churches are the ones that are struggling?  The ones that are small, the ones that have trouble supporting a pastor?

This is what leads people into the ideas that we need new measures.  Incidentally, it was tried in the mid-1800s when the LCMS was founded, when people who called themselves Lutheran were calling for doctrine that was more appealing to the American religious scene—rewrite that dusty, old Augsburg Confession, minimize baptismal regeneration, downplay the bodily presence of Christ in the Sacrament.

The idea that the church which is faithful to the unchanging word of God is a failure, is a lie of the devil.  And the reason that he uses that tactic is because we should be faithful to the word. We should devote ourselves and pore over God’s word. But, if the devil can convince us that the word is not enough, then he can easily offer counterfeit alternatives.

But where does that leave us?  It leaves us as the people of God in a place of lament.  WE have remained faithful to the word of God. We have desired this for ourselves and for our children. Yet what we see around us is contrary to that, as if we were on the wrong path.

But it also leaves us hating the world lies hating what the devil and our sinful flesh have done to ourselves and to those we love.  Yet over all of this strife, we continue trusting that God’s word is true and powerful to do what God says.

And so I’d like to close today’s sermon with praying Psalm 44 together.  It’s a Psalm of lament.  We’re going to pray it as a prayer for Christ’s Church in our day:

1O God, we have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us, what deeds you performed in their days, in the days of old:
2you with your own hand drove out the nations, but them you planted; you afflicted the peoples, but them you set free;
3for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm save them, but your right hand and your arm, and the light of your face, for you delighted in them.
4You are my King, O God; ordain salvation for Jacob!
5Through you we push down our foes; through your name we tread down those who rise up against us.
6For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me.
7But you have saved us from our foes and have put to shame those who hate us.
8In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever. Selah
9But you have rejected us and disgraced us and have not gone out with our armies.
10You have made us turn back from the foe, and those who hate us have gotten spoil.
11You have made us like sheep for slaughter and have scattered us among the nations.
12You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.
13You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us.
14You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.
15All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face
16at the sound of the taunter and reviler, at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.
17All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant.
18Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way;
19yet you have broken us in the place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death.
20If we had forgotten the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
21would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart.
22Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.
23Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
24Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
25For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground.
26Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!

And we can trust that God hears the cry of his faithful people.  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.

Fifth Sunday of Easter (John 14:1-14)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

 Jesus says, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers” (vv. 1-5).

            Let’s test that out.  I’m going to read an excerpt from a sermon, and you tell me if it is the voice of the Shepherd, or of a stranger.  Here goes:

That’s the way it is with God. What we can accomplish on our own is hardly noteworthy. We try our best, but the results aren’t exactly graceful flowing music. However, with the hand of the Master, our life’s work truly can be beautiful…

Next time you set out to accomplish great feats, or small feats, listen carefully. You can hear the voice of the Master—the voice of our Mother/Father God—and feel God’s loving arms around you.  Know and trust that those strong hands are there helping you, helping us all, to turn our feeble attempts into true masterpieces. [1]

Was that the voice of the Shepherd?  I hope not! Unless you were baptized in the name of the some androgynous god.  The Good Shepherd does not call Himself a conductor, tuning and polishing what is beautiful in us.  The true Shepherd does not direct you to your best efforts, because even your best efforts are sin in the sight of God [Isa. 64:6]. This impostor preaches a so-called gospel of ‘you’re good enough and God accepts you as you are.’  She does not enter through the Door, which is Christ.  Instead, she speaks platitudes about a god (whatever “he” or “she” is), rather than giving Christ’s sheep what they need: the healing that comes only by His wounds [1 Peter 2:24].

Here’s another one, and this is going to be harder:

The Gospel that proclaims that we are, like it or not, let off scot-free… You’re washed. You’re forgiven. You’re free. No law condemns you. No celestial finger is wagging at you. You walk in the liberation of the Spirit, Who lives in you, is active in you, and works relentlessly to mute the voices of guilt that still growl inside you…

The Good News has nothing to do with us, but everything of the Gospel is given to us. We are like beggars on the street corner. Jesus pulls us and drops a million dollars in our outstretched hands. Just like that. Not because we’re excellent panhandlers but because he’s got the money and wants to give it away to those who would never have it otherwise.

All we have is His love. And that’s all we need. Because His love is who He is. When we have Him, we have everything.[2]

            This one is harder because it’s gushing with all the right-sounding stuff.  But unlike the first example, a not a matter of using the right words.  It’s in the application of the Gospel.  What this message says is that you should just mute the guilt that nags in the back of your head.  Write it off as the devil.  Why? Because you have been forgiven.  But it’s in that subtly that our weak and wicked flesh wants to plug its ears to the Law’s accusations, even when it’s right.  This is the creeping error of antinomianism, of the Gospel replacing the Law for a Christian. Where it gains the most traction is among Christians who have a checkered past, and whose on-going weakness—thorns in the flesh [2 Cor. 12:7]—haunt them.  They earnestly want to lead a godly life, but they keep finding nothing but sin and death in the mirror.  The answer, though, is not to silence the accusation of the Law, but to confess that God is right [Ps. 51:4] and seek the Lord’s forgiveness and the Spirit’s continued work in confession and absolution and the Body and Blood of Christ.

As children, we learn to be afraid of strangers, because we don’t know their intentions for us.  This is a good warning, because there are many strangers in this world who mean us harm.  False shepherds are no exception.  What they preach is not the voice of the Good Shepherd.  Instead, they speak in the voice of that ancient serpent, the Devil.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.”

Our Lord calls them thieves and robbers.  Thieves, because they come craftily, sometimes doing such a good job that it fools the sheep.  It’s easy to spot messages of empty platitudes, but Gospely-messages that are laced with cyanide are harder to spot. The thief, like the Devil, quotes Scripture, but through a theological funhouse mirror so that the original intent or full meaning is corrupted.  By a sham gospel, you are led to trust in a different shepherd—one who minimizes the seriousness of sin, or praises you for how much you “do for the Lord,” or who focuses you on how spotless your life is.  But all the time, he steals confidence in Christ’s work from you and replaces it with doubt in your own.  The more that Satan can turn your focus away from the cross of Christ, the better he has set you on the road to hell with him.

There are also the robbers, who like Barabbas [John 18:40], are brazen in stealing sheep away from the Lord.  The robbers work within the bounds of the Church on earth.  Here you find open attempts to undermine the trustworthiness of God’s Word, and being told that we all worship the same “god.”  Here it’s easier for the well-catechized sheep to spot something destructive going on, but the weak are tossed to and fro by these suggestions.

Any teacher who comes to you apart from Jesus can do nothing but thieve and rob.  Recognizing them isn’t a matter of choosing the right name.  Sometimes those who turn out to be thieves have the very best of intentions, be well-educated, and loving people.  They may have even been faithful shepherds in the past.  “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” (Ps. 146:3)  Put your trust your Good Shepherd and hearing His voice.  Even St. Paul put himself under this same strict judgment: “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:8)  The message for the flock is to endeavor to hear only His voice through regular meditation and study of His Word and faithful witnesses to it throughout the centuries.  This is how we can be certain of hearing the voice of our Shepherd, and being cared for by Him.

Why is this important?  Because Satan cannot offer what the Good Shepherd gives.  Thanks be to the true God that He has sent us His Son, because in Him, we are not stolen away, killed, and destroyed.  To us, who have been smothered by evil and death, we bask in what our Good Shepherd gives His sheep:

“The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep… If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture…I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

It is true, we can be confident of hearing our Shepherd’s voice, because He has called His Church with His voice.  He seeks us out, gathers us into His fold.  His rod defends us against our enemies and His staff guides us through this treacherous world.  And He will lead us out, calling us by name as He gave us His own in the waters of Baptism.  He is with us in the valley of the shadow of death, all the days of our life.  And in Him we have life that abounds beyond present sin and death, endures forever.

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


[2] “Gospel Phobia” by Chad Bird. (accessed 5/2/20)

Fifth Sunday of Easter (John 14:1-14)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Fifth Sunday of Easter + May 14, 2017
Text: John 14:1-14

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.”  The only reason Jesus says this to His disciples is because He knows their hearts are troubled.  You don’t say “I am the Life” unless there’s the threat of death.  You don’t say do not be troubled unless there is tumult and uncertainty.
Jesus was speaking to His disciples at that time as they were about to face His betrayal, crucifixion, death, and then His ascension.  This arrangement where Jesus is with them face to face would not—could not—last forever, because it was necessary for Jesus to be taken from them in His suffering, and taken when He ascended into heaven 40 days after His resurrection.
The Ascension is coming, when Jesus’ disciples would lose their visible presence with the Lord.  Now, the Ascension is something we confess each week—He ascended to the Father and sits at the right hand of the Father Almighty—but something that isn’t well understood.  Thankfully, these next few weeks, each Gospel reading will teach us about the significance and comfort of Jesus’ Ascension.
In this part of the Gospel, Jesus reassures us about His Ascension: “Let not your hearts be troubled.”  “I go to prepare a place for you” and “I will come again and will take you to myself.”
“Let not your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God; believe also in Me.”
Things like our bills, the direction of the country, and keeping our job cause great anxiety.  How much more should it matter where we go when it’s all said and done?
Yet our Lord says about this: do not be troubled.  It’s not based on performance evaluations or lifelong dedication.  Instead He says, believe!  Believe that He has done everything which is needed to bring a poor, weak, sinful creature back to God and bring them safely into eternal rest.
But how important it is to believe!  Where faith reassures a troubled heart, unbelief leads to an uncertain and callous heart.  The calling of a disciple of Jesus is to take Him at His Word each day. Repent of your wicked thoughts, words, and deeds.  Believe in God and the One He has sent to accomplish your forgiveness, your salvation.
“I go to prepare a place for you.”
On Good Friday, the debt you owed was paid.  Every sin which would bar you from God’s holy presence was atoned for there.
So, the comfort for you, as His disciple, is that He returns to the Father to prepare a place for your return to the Father.
This life is a pilgrimage, not a destination.  The true end of life is not the grim grave. It is to have a place with God.  What counts in the meantime is not our achievements here or how much we collect (because we must let all that go).  What truly lasts when this life comes to a close is our faith in Jesus, who alone is the way to the Father and the resurrection to eternal life.
Yet in our pilgrimage, we go through many unknown ways—unknowns about the future and the struggles we and our families will have to endure, as well as unknowns about what will become of Christians in the world.  Yet, Jesus assures us, “Let not your hearts be troubled…you know the way to where I am going.”  Even though we haven’t seen the end of our journey, we already know the way.  You may not know what lies on the road ahead, but you can be certain that through faith, your Savior has already prepared your place.
“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.”
Our comfort isn’t in the Ascension alone, but also in the fact that from thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.  He comes again to gather us into that promise of eternity.
Salvation is not complete yet.  Yes, of course, the atonement which brought peace to all who believe is finished (John 19:30).  However, the creation still longs in eager expectation for Jesus’ return and the revealing of the sons of God (Romans 8:19-21).  That’s why the world is still like it is, full of unrest and destruction.  That part of the job isn’t finished yet.
So know where to expect paradise.  Paradise won’t be in the body of death you now have—full of sin and plagued by death.  Paradise won’t be in this world, filled with corruption and wickedness.  It will be complete when we see the Son of Man coming on the clouds in glory.  It will be when we rise from our graves finally free from the curse of sin and death.  That’s the hope that we press toward, where our longings for outward peace will finally be satisfied.
Through many unknown ways, by faith we already know the only way to heaven.  The way is Jesus, who has become your way to eternal life.  Do not be troubled that He has ascended and is no longer visibly among us.  Believe that He has gone ahead of us, as the forerunner so that the children of God may be at home with their Father.  Amen.