Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost series A
Today’s gospel reading begins with an important word: Immediately. “Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds.” (Matthew 14:25) Immediately after what? Well, immediately after what we heard about last Sunday: the miraculous feeding of the 5,000. After everyone ate their fill and the leftovers were collected, which amounted to twelve baskets full, Jesus immediately made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of him to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. No time to celebrate this miracle or to relax and enjoy what just happened. Immediately they are sent across the Sea of Galilee.
I point this out because this word is an important part of this record, the Holy Spirit caused it to be written down for us, and because it reminds us of how life actually works. Many momentous changes in our life, good or bad, happen immediately.
It can be a good thing – when you learn that you got into the top choice for college, when you learn that you are pregnant, or when a family member calls you with exciting news. These are life-changing events, often, and even though they are positive, they happen immediately. And immediately, our life changed.
These can also be unwelcome events, of course, that happen immediately – like an illness or accident or the death of a loved one. Or even this pandemic. Not long ago, we had never heard of COVID-19. And then, almost immediately, it seems to have taken over our world and our lives. Life often happens that way.
In the case of the disciples in this gospel reading, the change they experienced was at the command of Jesus, but that doesn’t make it any easier. They are asked to leave Jesus right after he has performed this miracle. And when they do, they find themselves, almost immediately, on a boat battered by the waves, far from land, with the wind against them.
And we have all been there. We have all been caught in one of life’s storms, being battered by circumstances beyond our control, far from the safety of land, with the wind and seemingly everything else against us. We all get our turn in this particular boat, usually when we least expect it. None of us gets through this life wholly unbattered and unscathed.
And very often, these storms come at us immediately, without warning. When they do, it is worth remembering this story, and very much worth remembering the two other times that the word “immediately” shows up in this Bible account of Jesus, both of which teach us something important about our Christian life.
The next time the word “immediately” occurs is when Jesus walks on the water to his disciples. It is a famous part of this story that even people unfamiliar with the Bible have heard about – Jesus walking on the water. Of course, many of those people may not know why Jesus walks water. And the reason is simple: Jesus wanted to be with his disciples in their time of trouble. They are caught in this terrifying storm, and Jesus doesn’t want them to be alone. So, he walks out to them. It’s a simple but important detail that this story teaches us: that whenever we are caught in one of life’s storms, we can trust that we are not alone.
Jesus is with us. We are never alone in that boat as we go through life. God’s Son, our Lord, and Savior, is always with us. That is his promise. He may not immediately calm every storm, but he is with us during every single one. When we feel battered by the waves, far from the safety of land, with the wind blowing strongly against us, we can be assured that Jesus is with us.
The disciples are not immediately comforted by seeing Jesus walking on the water to them. In fact, they are terrified, thinking that they are seeing a ghost. And so they cry out in fear. And that is exactly when the word “immediately” shows us again. The disciples cried out in fear, and immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”
And there is an important teaching here about prayer. When life’s storms hit, we can cry out to the Lord in fear, and the Lord will immediately answer that prayer. Being afraid doesn’t mean that we don’t have faith. There is nothing wrong with being afraid. Our Lord wants to hear from us when we are afraid. Cry out in fear when life’s storm hits but make it a prayer. Cry out to the Lord, and he will immediately answer your prayer. Take heart, Jesus says. It is I. Do not be afraid.
In response to seeing Jesus walking on the water, Peter makes a very strange request. “Lord,” he says, “if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” So Jesus obliges, saying simply: “Come.” Peter gets out of the boat and starts walking on the water toward Jesus! And Peter seems to do this very well until he notices the storm. Then he becomes frightened and begins to sink.
Now, the storm was there the whole time. So was the water. And so was Jesus. So what changed? Peter’s faith, right? What else is there? That’s the only thing that changed. He began to doubt. He took his eyes off Jesus. He looked at the storm all around him, the wind above him, and the water below him, and he became frightened and started to sink.
Perhaps you’ve had those moments, too. I know that I have. Times when you’ve taken your eyes off Jesus. Looked around at the storms in your lives and started to doubt. If so, remember what happens next because we get one more use of the word “immediately.” In a panic, Peter cries out: “Lord, save me!” And Jesus does. Immediately. He immediately reaches out his hand and catches Peter. No rebuke, no punishment. He catches Peter the moment he cries out to Jesus.
This is important because sometimes, when we are in one of those storms and forget about Jesus’ promise never to leave us, we can feel a little guilty, and our guilt can sometimes keep us from crying out to Jesus for help. Well, that might make the devil happy, but not Jesus. Jesus wants us to cry out for help whenever we need it, regardless of how faithful or unfaithful we have been lately. And he will immediately catch us.
After he catches us, he might very well confront us about our lack of faith, just as he does with Peter. But not before. Only after he catches Peter, he says, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”
So, if your boat is a little battered right now – and who isn’t in the midst of a storm called LIFE? – Take heart. If you feel far away from the safety of the land, do not be afraid. And if you have taken your eyes off Jesus, open up those same eyes of faith and see Jesus with you in the midst of that storm. Because he is, he always is. Jesus is with you, on the boat, in the storm, and when you feel like you might be drowning. Jesus is there.
We can prepare for some of life’s storms. They don’t all hit immediately and unexpectedly. Some are more like hurricanes than tornadoes. But many of the storms of life hit immediately. And when they do, it is good to remember this story. It is good to remember that whenever we cry out in fear to the Lord, he immediately answers our prayers with the promise that he is with us. And when we take our eyes off Jesus and become overwhelmed by what is happening in our life, it is again good to remember that Jesus will be right there to catch us.
It is no wonder that when all of this was said and done, those in the boat worshiped Jesus, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” That is why we worship. To take a moment in the midst of our journey through life, to gather on this little boat called faith, and to worship the one who promises to be with us through every storm. Thanks be to God. Amen
We live by the law. We rely on the "rule of law" to have an ordered society. We play by the rules, and we call out the cheaters. We believe in cause and effect because that's how the world works. We look for principles and laws that allow us to understand, predict, and to some measure, gain control over things. We expect to find them too.
The law keeps things together and in line. Without the periodic table of the elements, there is no chemistry. Without Newton's laws, there is no physics. Without the universal constants, there is no universe. And as we've discovered, there is no ordered society without laws and the enforcement of those laws.
The law is so much a part of our lives that the Gospel—the good news of God's grace in Christ, undeserved, unmerited forgiveness, love to the loveless, grace to the undeserving—is a strange foreign language. You can't run a business, a family, a corporation, a society on grace. Old Adam will take advantage of it every time.
The problem comes when we take the horizontal rules of the road and try to run them vertically. God doesn't deal with us by the same set of rules that we use to deal with one another. The law works horizontally—before men. But the law does not work vertically before God. That was the problem with Israel. Israel tried to live by the law before God rather than by grace through faith in the promise. So what happened? When the promise God made to Israel came true, when Israel's Messiah, Jesus Christ, came, most of the Jewish people rejected him. God's pure grace was right before them in the form of Jesus, but Israel clung to law.
For the apostle Paul, the issue is deeply personal. It likely involved his own family. He speaks of his great distress, the anguish of heart, sorrow over his fellow Israelites and brothers according to the flesh. Religiously speaking, they had it all—the Torah, the prophets, the promises, the covenants, the worship, status as God's favored nation, his chosen people, the apple of his eye. And yet they did not believe it. Paul was willing to be damned in their place if possible: "For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh" (v 3). But that's not possible. Or necessary. Christ has already done that.
It would seem as though the Word of God had failed to deliver the goods. The seed had failed to sprout. The Word returned empty. The Gospel, which Paul called the power of God to salvation to both Jew and Greek, seemed to fail in the synagogue. But that's simply not the case. Faith is not hereditary. Most of you know that through experience. Christian parents don't necessarily bring up Christian children. We bring them to Baptism, and we bring them to church, often against the protests of the old Adam. We teach them. And yet many don't stay with it. Like the Israelites, they had gifts, but faith didn't appear to take hold, or if it did, it withered like a seedling in shallow soil or was choked by the weeds of this world. Paul's way of expressing this is revealing: "Not all Israel is Israel."
To underscore this, Paul reminds us of Abraham's two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was the legal firstborn by Hagar, Sarah's servant. He was entitled to the inheritance of the firstborn. The law said so. But Ishmael was conceived out of unbelief, trusting in the law of fertility over the outrageous promise of God that a barren woman in her nineties could conceive and bear a son. The promised Seed of salvation did not fall upon Ishmael but Isaac, the son of the promise, the son born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. God throws out the rule book and runs things by grace—faith in the promise, not the laws of biology.
The same holds for our Lord in his incarnation. A virgin conceived and bore a son. That violates everything you learned about the facts of life. But God doesn't save by the law. God doesn't even act according to the law. He throws out the law and does his own Gospel thing where older women and virgins conceived by the Word and sinners are justified for Jesus' suffering and death on the cross and his resurrection from the grave.
A second example: Jacob and Esau. Rebekah was carrying twins, and no one knew it. Before the twins were born, though, before they had a chance to do anything either good or bad, so that the world would understand that God operates by grace and not by the law, God revealed to Rebekah that he had chosen Jacob over Esau, the second born over the firstborn. "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated" (v 13). This was before Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of stew or before Jacob tricked his blind father into blessing him as the firstborn. Why? "In order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls" (v 11). In a word, grace.
Does this mean that Jacob was saved and Esau damned? Does this mean that God elects some to be saved and others to be damned? No! Christ came to be the world's Savior, not select portions of the world. This is where our love for rules and principles betrays us. We read these verses in Romans regarding eternal election to salvation, whereas Paul is speaking of temporal selection in salvation history. It's like a play where everyone gets assigned a part. Some play the good guys, some play the villains, and some are background actors, but they are all essential to the plot. Esau is as important to salvation history as Jacob. Ishmael is as important as Isaac. And even if Ishmael and Esau weren't the sons born of the promise and didn't have the roles in salvation history to be in the line of Christ, they were just as surely saved if they believed the promise. Esau and Ishmael are reminders that God works through grace and not law and that salvation is not about what you do but about what God does in Christ.
Jacob and Esau remind us that God's election is grace, a gift, without any merit or worthiness in us. And again, to be treated as firstborn, we must be second born—born from above by water and Spirit (Jn 3:3–8).
That you and I are here this morning, alive, upright, breathing, taking in food, gathered in God's name, hearing the Word, and receiving the gifts of Christ, is entirely gift. Grace. You were destined to be here just as you were destined in Christ for salvation before the foundations of the world. You can no more boast of being here and believing than clay can boast of becoming a vase or a cup. The Potter did this, not the clay.
So what about Israel, which brought Paul so much anguish of heart? Consider it a work in progress. A majority were hardened, a remnant believed. The hardening of Israel meant a place for the Gentiles in Abraham's family tree. God isn't done yet. Watch and see what he does in our day. He's winnowing, refining, calling; he's doing his master potter thing, forming our clay into the image of his Son.
God loves the unloved and the unlovable. He embraces the entire world in the death of his Son. The rule of law works fine in this world, but the rule of law cannot bring you to the kingdom of God. That is entirely by grace through faith in Jesus, who bore the sin of the world on the cross, the sins of Ishmael, Esau, Pharaoh, you, and me. Joined to Christ in baptismal faith, you are born into the "right side of salvation history." The Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the family of God. Amen.
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost 07/30/23
Text: Matthew 13: 31-33; 44-52
Title: One Man's Trash is Another Man's Treasure."
Two weeks ago, in the parable of the sower, we found out that we are to throw the seed of God's Word everywhere. We are not to decide who is worthy or not worthy of hearing the Word of God.
In last week's parable, the parable of the wheat and weeds, we found out that it is not our business but God's business to decide who is a child of God and who is not. God will make that final distinction on judgment day.
In today's Gospel, there are several parables, but I will take a closer look at the parable of the treasure found in the field. I have always wondered how you would treat an object you thought was worth only a few dollars after discovering it is worth thousands. Do you lock it away, put it out for all to see, or sell it? Maybe you sit in front of it and admire it. I don't know, but I am sure that you would never look at it in the same way again.
In our reading for today, we see that God's love is hidden in the ordinary things of life. The Kingdom seems to be anything but extraordinary. A mustard seed is tiny. The yeast seems invisible and insignificant. The treasure is hidden in the field. The fine pearl is mixed in with the ordinary pearls. And hidden in the net among all the fish caught is the finest seafood.
Looking at our lives, we see only the mundane, the struggle to live as we would like. As we look back on our lives, we see the what-ifs, the dreams that were not fulfilled, the ambitions that were somehow lost, and the evil in the world. And we think that if there is a God out there whom we can trust, he is surely doing a good job hiding. And that gives us a problem, for we would like to have an active God that we can see, talk to, and maybe even touch.
But we don't have that kind of God, at least we don't think so, because we who are spiritually blind cannot see the Kingdom of God that is at work among us. For the most part, we are unable to see what God is doing right under all noses in the seemingly mundane things of life.
We look in all the wrong places, we read all the latest self-help books, the most popular religious books, and everything but his Word, all in the hope of seeing God at work when in fact, he is at work in our lives.
I am afraid that too often, we do not grasp the significance of a little baby born in a manager. We fail to see that the tiny mustard seed can produce a mighty shrub that spreads its branches far enough for birds to build nests. We fail to see that a little yeast in a huge amount of flour can make a truckload of bread. We fail to see in the weed patch of life a treasure.
This reminds me of a Texan that was mining gold, but he could never get the pit cleared of some sludge. It just kept seeping in and ruining his work. One day a city slicker from the East came by and offered to buy the land; the Texan jumped at the chance and sold it to him. Little did he know that that sludge was an indication of oil, black gold and that the man he sold it to would become wealthy beyond his imagination. That Texan who thought he saw a sucker was blind to the treasure before him.
We, too, are often blinded to God's work because we are caught up in instant gratification, consumerism, and all those things that keep pushing God out of his rightful place in our lives. I am afraid that, for the most part, we are so blind to God's work in our lives that we often do not see what is right before us in his Word and in his Sacraments.
Just because we are often blind to God's work in our lives does not mean that he is blind to our lack of compassion, our grudge-holding, our "they will just have to get over it," or "tough luck" attitude toward those we have hurt, either unintentionally or on purpose. God notices those things in our hearts.
Our present and future would be bleak if God had not come into our world as that seemingly insignificant little baby boy. God could not and did not leave us on the trash heap. He wants to turn us into treasure, for he treasures us.
He comes to us today, not as a person publicly doing miracles, nor does he come in flashes of lightning or thunder, but in the mundane, the broken bread, the wine poured out, the water splashed in baptism.
He is the mustard seed that will grow into a wonderful, almost tree-like bush. He is the treasure worth giving all for. He is the pearl waiting to be discovered. He is all those things, yet he was and still is rejected today. The world was blind to the treasure he is, and so they trashed him by nailing him to a cross.
As awful as that was, God knew his son was not trash but treasure. He knew that through the trashing he was taking, he would take the trash of the world, that is, you and me, and make a wonderful treasure out of us. And what he treasures will not have to worry about being thrown into the trash dump.
Brian Stoffregain, a Lutheran pastor, once told a modern-day parable designed to be told along with the parable of the treasure hidden in the field. It goes like this. A man finds a treasure box hidden in a field. It is too big for him to carry home, so he buries it so no one else can find it. He finds out the field is for sale, so he gets all the money he can get; he even goes into debt to buy the field, for he knows it will be worth it once he has the treasure box.
He digs it up and cleans the treasure box until it shines like gold. It was a beautiful box, heavily carved and made of the finest materials. He spent hours just sitting there admiring it. He talked constantly about his beautiful treasure box. He would wake up in the morning thinking about the box. At night he would lay in bed dreaming about his wonderful treasure box.
Whenever someone would ask him what is in his wonderful treasure box, he would reply, "I don't know. I haven't looked inside. But it sure is a beautiful box, isn't it?" To the day he died, he never looked inside the box. He never found out what great treasure the box contained.
Brian's modern-day parable is about how we in the church often emphasize the box rather than the real treasure inside the box. Too often, we let denominational loyalties, buildings, liturgies, hymn books, creeds, and the confessional books that make up our treasure box become more important than the treasure they contain. In doing so, we let them become barriers to the real treasure, which is the Kingdom of God.
I want to close with this thought. It came to me as I reviewed my sermon this morning. It is time to shift our priorities so that God is at the top of our list instead of wherever we have him now. For we do not possess the Kingdom of God, it possesses us. In fact, God asks us to be slaves to his Kingdom, for it is only when we are slaves to his Kingdom that we will learn how pleasurable it is to start to turn loose of our time and money as we care for those in need of our society, those who need to see and hear of the love of Jesus.
God has given each of you the most precious treasure, the most gift, all bought at the greatest cost; the life of the Son of God, to hold and to share until the end of the age. Let us then respond to his great gift by devoting our lives to thanking, praising, serving, and obeying Him. Amen.
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, July 16, 2023
The Sower Knows…
Text: Matthew 13:1–9, 18–23
Today is the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost. The season of Pentecost leads congregations into growth toward spiritual maturity and fruitful Christian living. This is especially evident in this Sunday’s Gospel. Following the momentous events of Easter, the seed Jesus, once buried in the dark earth was raised becoming the first fruits of the resurrection. The Christian’s life of faith, love, and witness germinates, grows, and multiplies from Christ and his victory over death. we pray that God’s Word would accomplish this in us as we “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest” the Scriptures as they are sown in our hearts.
The Word, that is, Jesus, as the seed, is explicit in the Old Testament Reading, including the assurance that “it shall not return to me empty” (Is 55:11). The seed parables in Matthew 13 show the temporal and eternal fruit that results in the lives of those who hear and understand the Word. Paul’s teaching in the Romans 8 calls our attention to the ultimate fruitful harvest that will be gathered from faithful hearing of the Word at the end of the age (“you will live,” “heirs of God,” Rom 8:13, 17), despite the opposition offered by our own sinful flesh and the enemies of the Gospel (“suffer with him,” 8:17; God’s “steadfast love” revives even “grass” that withers, Ps 103:15–17).
V 1 of our Gospel reading starts with “That same day.” The author is taking care to show the continuity of this new section (beginning in 13:1) with what has gone immediately before in chapter 12. In the preceding chapter, Jesus experienced the incomprehension and unbelief of the crowds and identified the Twelve as his true family who listens to his words and do the will of his Father in heaven (12:46–50). Therefore, the “crowds” here (v 2) are not a receptive and understanding audience, which explains Jesus’ explanation and warning later in 13:10–17, and why Jesus explains his parable only to the Twelve in verses 18–23.
In Vv 4–7: The flow of the parable starts immediately with seeds falling on the path, on the rocky ground, and among the thorns—exactly the places seeds do not belong and which any normal sower worth his salt would avoid. Only at the end of this account of the sower’s strange work, verse 8, the reader learns that the exercise was not completely pointless. Though it does not amount to a strict calculation, the impression is that no more than a quarter of seeds sown had any chance of germinating and growing to maturity.
Vv 9: Jesus’ final statement, “Let the one who has ears hear,” a formula which appears earlier in 11:15 and comes up again later, in 13:43, is crucial to interpreting this parable within the context of this third discourse in Matthew. It is no mere —“So listen up.” It is a prophetic appeal and warning. Not all the seed of the kingdom will grow because they do not all fall on good soil, that is, on hearing ears. Jesus’ words in verses 10–17 are a telling commentary on this saying.
Now we move to Vv 18: Following his sermon to the crowd, Jesus speaks here only to his disciples, those who, although not perfectly, truly hear and understand him. He begins, “You all, therefore, hear the parable of the sower.” They are different from the unreceptive crowds.
Notice that Jesus does not indicate anywhere precisely what the yield of the seed falling in good soil is in any concrete sense. Yet, following the repeated pattern of sowing and harvesting unlike a farmer’s sowing and harvesting God’s sowing gives a sense of continuous sense of sowing and harvesting. Those who hear in turn become sowers themselves, participating in the work of the kingdom by living and speaking the Word to the world.
Vv 19–23: This text is an extended and carefully crafted metaphor (or allegory) explaining the different soil conditions as illustrative of how people receive the Word of God differently. While the parable clearly is speaking of those who have not heard the Gospel message seed, it also speaks to us who in numerous times in our lives, and indeed at various times in any day, correspond to the different soil types described in this parable.
Sometimes we may hear the Word, but it bounces off like seed thrown onto a rock-hard path because we do not bother to hear or understand.
At other times, we may hear it and receive it at some level, but it fails to take root and dies when our faith is challenged by something.
At other times, it is choked out by our worldly concerns and priorities, the busyness and demands of our hectic lives.
Yet despite it all, somehow, the miracle does happen. God’s seed-sowing work in peoples’ lives works out, through the Spirit’s power, into fruitfulness (Rom 8:14). Verse 23 notably describes the process of the “good soil hearer” simply listening, understanding and beginning the process of growth toward fruit-bearing. This is all described in an expedited, “time-lapse” style narrative, almost as if the fruit-bearing process begins immediately. There are no complications or impediments—simply the seed finding the soil where it can grow as intended by the sower and producing its increase.
Because of how this parable is constructed, we are tempted to assume that its weight of interpretation should lie with the seed's progress after it is sown. This precious seed of God’s life-giving Word must, we know, be received and nurtured by hearing ears and understanding hearts. Even though it is often wasted, as sinful human beings ignore and filter it out of their lives, we know that the seed of God’s Word is something of great value for which we, the receivers, naturally wish to take on responsibility, so that the seed grows well and produces fruit. We are called to work in the Lord’s kingdom, right? So there is work for us to do here. We all know that having viable seed is one thing, but where it is planted is the other half of grain farming. The natural question arises: What kind of soil is in my life? While this aspect of the parable is not to be ignored, it is not at the very heart of the story.
As in all the parables, Jesus is, rhetorically speaking, the “omniscient narrator.” His telling indicates that the sower in this story is no clueless amateur but knows what he is doing. He is well aware, even as he throws his seed into all the fruitless corners of the field as well as into the good soil, that much of that precious seed will die where it lands.
He knows already that only some of it, perhaps only a little of it, will reach good soil and come to harvest and that even this harvest will vary significantly in its fruitfulness. Yet he does not hold back one seed. It is hardly a cost-effective exercise.
There is a delicious irony here in this text. Jesus is himself that very sower as he speaks this parable to the unhearing crowds on the shore. He is himself enacting this parable, as he tells it. How many in this unhearing crowd will truly listen and have the seed of the kingdom take deep root in their lives so that it grows up and bears fruit? Going by the “rocky and thorny ground” Jesus encounters in chapter 12, very few, one would have to think.
This is why Jesus speaks in parables to the crowds but explains the parable’s meaning only to the Twelve, whose eyes and ears are “blessed” because, unlike the crowds, they do see and hear, although not perfectly (13:16–17). They are the true target audience here; they will be sent out to preach and sow the kingdom in rocky places and weed-infested fields as well as the good soil of the world. They are taught the “farming” of God’s kingdom and its dynamics. They are being shown that normal commercial-style measurable criteria do not apply. Investment and return in the kingdom do not work the way they do in the world. The world and, unfortunately too many Christian congregations think: avoid risk, make what you have last, and count the cost and reward. But the Gospel is not like this. It is not we who make the Gospel last or count! The seed is not ours but God’s. It is not like the predictable agriculture of the natural world. It is supernatural.
The kingdom of God is thrown into every corner of the world, even in places where it will be trodden thoughtlessly underfoot. What is the point of our sowing the Word of God in these post-Christian days in the West? Nobody listens or cares, it so often seems. But “the sower” of this parable knows more than we do. He knows that God’s Word never goes out only to return empty but always produces the fruit he intends even when it looks hopeless to human eyes (Is 55:10–11).
The sower knows there is good soil out there, hearts that miraculously hear and receive God’s Word and grace by the Spirit’s power and bear fruit. And how! The kingdom of God is not like the earthly sower’s seed supply. It is inexhaustible and superabundant. The sowing of the kingdom does not know any holding back or staying “safe.” It is always worth it, for God, as we are told in Ephesians 3:20, “Now to him, that is God, who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen.
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost series A
Come unto me - all you who are tired - all you who are feeling drained -all you who are feeling empty - all you who are burdened by a sense of disappointment and let down - all you who are exhausted by the struggles of life and weighed down by your sense of duty and of what is right and wrong - and I will give you rest. I will cleanse you, fill you with new joy, and establish a relationship with God that will give you new life - here and in the world to come.
That is the first part of what Jesus had to say - of what Jesus promised. The second part is this - "take my yoke upon you and learn from me." This seems a contradiction - only Jesus could promise rest from our burdens in one breath and turn around and speak of taking up another burden and another yoke in the next. What we need is vacation - a rest - not more labor. Or so our worldly logic would dictate. After all a burden is
still a burden - a yoke is still a yoke.
What Jesus was driving at, however is that there is no such thing as a burden-free life - life always has burdens, but WHAT KIND of BURDEN it is that we carry.
As a Pastor, I have spent much of my ministry providing comfort to people who are cracking under the burdens of affluence - mortgages, debts on two cars - how to deal with keeping together a home full of appliances and conveniences which are meant to give them free time but enslave them instead to working harder and harder to pay for them all.
I deal with those whose lives are overwhelmed with constant activity - and conflict - providing counsel to those who are weighed down heavily by the burden of dealing with the hassles of others - the actions of others - hassles and activities with their children -their in-laws - their parents - their spouses - their bosses - and their selves.
I have learned from this that life's greatest burden is not having too much to do or care about - some of the happiest people I know are the busiest. Rather the greatest burden we have is our constant engagement with the trivial and the unimportant - with the temporary and the passing - with the ultimately uncontrollable and unpredictable.
The issue in life is not if we shall be burdened - but with what shall we be burdened; it is not if we shall be yoked - but to what and with whom we shall be yoked.
Jesus has no interest in unburdening us so that we can be free or liberated or self-esteemed or all those other modern infatuations that are debilitating burdens. Jesus is interested in lifting the burdens off our backs that drain us, that suck the life out of us so that he can place another on them better suited to us.
He is interested in removing the harness that we forge for ourselves, or the world forges for us with its constant demands and pressures, so that he can place around our necks his own yoke - his own harness – the yoke, the harness, the burden - that brings to us new life, new energy, new joy to us - and to others through us.
The promise and the reality is that the burden that Christ has for us, the yoke he offers to us when we come to him and learn from him, is that it is an easy burden and that in wearing his yoke and learning from him, we will find rest.
Several years ago, while visiting a plantation museum, I saw a wooden yoke designed for a person to wear when carrying water or produce on the farm. I was told that each yoke was custom-made for the person using it so that it would be as comfortable as possible as they used it.
The yoke that Jesus puts upon us is an easy one -it is designed for us - individually and personally, it does not drag us down, it does not chafe or bind or cause us to collapse in exhaustion. It is well fitted for us.
Jesus' promise is not that we shall find a good vacation with him- that we will be able to get away from it all, but rather that he will refresh our souls when we come into his presence -and that when we venture forth - with him - into the world again, that he will replace the burdens that destroy and exhaust us with a yoke, that will be life affirming and easier to carry.
His promise is that what we come unto him when we learn from him, and offer ourselves to him, that he will minister to us and through us – that he will give strength and hope and joy and peace, patience and love, that he will give us new life - here and now and in the world to come.
"Come unto me all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
I have been speaking to you the last couple of Sundays about what it means to live the Christian Life. I did not take what I said from some book that talks about how to live the Christian Life, but from the example of Jesus as it is recorded in God's words to us. Jesus, our Lord and Savior, saw their need when he came into contact with people, whether individuals or crowds. Sometimes the need was physical. Sometimes, it was a spiritual or a combination of both. Their need led to him having compassion, which led him to spring into action, unlike the compassion we so often feel, but fail to act on, led him to spring into action.
Last week I talked some about Christian Freedom leading to a Christian life. Today, as we are nearing Independence Day when we celebrate our freedom living in this country, I want to share with you what it means, according to God's Word, to live our lives in freedom, for it is not the same as the freedom we have in this country.
Martin Luther had much to say on the topic of Christian freedom in his tract from 1520. On the Freedom of the Christian that was published in Wittenberg as the third of three writings that characterized the evangelical theology of the Reformation. The Roman Curia had issued the bull Exsurge Domine on June 15, 1520 in which Luther was threatened to be charged as a heretic and ordered to halt his preaching. This opened him up to the possibility of arrest and punishment. Luther responded with a fury of activity. To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation was published on August 18, 1520. The Babylonian Captivity of the Church was published on October 6, and On the Freedom of the Christian was published in November of 1520. From this affliction and the Lord's refining fire, Martin Luther was given to write one of the most enduring treatments on Christian freedom in Christendom.
The tract begins with two seemingly contradictory propositions: A Christian is an utterly free man, Lord of all, subject to none. And a Christian is an utterly dutiful man, servant of all, subject to all.
Aristotle stated the obvious among the ancients about lords and servants: "If there is a lord, then there is (also) a servant. And if there is a servant, then there is also a lord." That makes sense, for if you don't have one, you cannot have the other. Following Jesus and Saint Paul's teachings as they are recorded in God's Word, Luther joins the terms Lord and servant in one person. For it is only in Christ that God sets a person utterly, completely free in Christ. He is Lord of all, subject to none, while at the same time, love binds him as an utterly dutiful servant to the neighbor, subject to everyone. This seemingly contradiction in terms of Christian freedom, then plays out in faith and love.
Luther summarizes this tight connection between Christ and the Christian's freedom in the introduction: "…in I Cor. 9 [:19], 'For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all,' and in Rom. 13[:8], 'Owe no one anything, except to love one another.' Love by its very nature is ready to serve and be subject to him who is loved. So Christ, although He was Lord of all, was 'born of woman, born under the law' [Gal. 4:4], and therefore was at the same time a free man and servant, 'in the form of God' and 'of a servant.' [Phil. 2:6-7]."
As utterly free as Christ was in his time on this earth, he also bound himself under the law to serve his creatures and win their salvation. His life becomes the form of Christian freedom. Luther considers freedom first as it relates to the inner man or what we would call our soul. The inner man becomes righteous, free, and a pious Christian in Christ. Christ's actions do it all.
"One thing, and only one thing, is necessary for the Christian life of righteousness and freedom. That one thing is the most holy Word of God, the Gospel of Christ, as Christ says in John 11[:25], 'I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live'; as John 8[:36], 'So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed'; and Matt. 4[:4], 'Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.'"
Luther specifies which Word he means: "The Word is the gospel of God concerning his Son, who was made flesh, suffered, rose from the dead, and was glorified through the Spirit who sanctifies." What a comfort this Gospel brings with it! By faith alone, the Christian receives all that Christ gives. "Faith alone is the saving and efficacious use of the Word of God, according to Rom. 10[:9]: 'If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.'" A man is "justified by faith alone and not any works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the Word, and consequently it would not need faith."
Later in the tract, Dr. Luther considers the outer man. Are Christians content to be saved by faith alone and not do any works? Is Luther's liberty a liberty of ease? Luther answers the question, "not so," He writes, "That would be indeed proper if we were wholly inner and perfectly spiritual men. But such we shall be only at the last day, the day of the resurrection of the dead. As long as we live in the flesh, we only begin to make some progress in that which shall be perfected in the future life." Insofar as man is "a servant, he does all kinds of works." He must learn self-control and have dealings with others in this life.
"Here the works begin: here a man cannot enjoy leisure; here he must indeed take care to discipline his body by fastings, watchings, labors, and other reasonable discipline and subject it to the Spirit so that it will obey and conform to the inner man and faith and not revolt against faith and hinder the inner man, as it is the nature of the body to do if not held in check.
The inner man, who by faith is created in the image of God, is both joyful and happy because of Christ in whom so many benefits are conferred on him; and therefore, it is the occupation to serve God joyfully and without thought of gain, in Love that is not constrained."
Luther's tract on freedom has rightly been called: "the perfect expression of Luther's Reformation understanding of the mystery of Christ." As it goes with Christ, so it goes with the freedom of the Christian. The Freedom of the Christian is a confession of Christ in a nutshell. Christian freedom is a gift from Christ Himself, "For freedom Christ has set us free…" (Galatians 5:1). What Christ did to win salvation in His divine and human natures, He now gives to those who by baptism bear His name: Christian.
God justifies the sinner by faith alone. The sinner is changed in inner and outer man after the likeness of Christ. The Christian is at once utterly free in faith and a servant to all in works of Love. The Christian life is lived between these twin poles of faith and Love. This is the seemingly contradictory Christian freedom as God teaches us in the Bible.
So, how do we recognize the statement in one’s personal life and in the life of a congregation? We need to look at where the time and money are spent. Is it on self or serving those in need who are suffering physically and spiritually? Amen.
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost 6-25-23
Freed from sin
Last Sunday, I talked to you about Jesus having compassion for those troubled and heavy-laden by life. We learned a valuable lesson from that passage. First, just as Jesus saw those in physical and spiritual need, we, too, must see the physical and spiritual needs of those we come into contact with in our daily lives. This seeing is letting our eyes and minds see through the eyes of the Holy Spirit.
Secondly we learned that just as Jesus did, we are to have compassion for those we see in need. Compassion is not just feeling sorry for those suffering. Jesus' compassion led to action. That is the compassion we are to show as we act kindly and lovingly to those in need, especially those in need of Jesus. My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, seeing, compassion, and action define the Christian life.
They don't come naturally to us because we are, just like those outside these church walls, naturally sinful creatures who put our interests and those we love interests first and foremost. That is who we are. We struggle with helping others, especially if it means sacrificing our time and money.
That is why I want to share with you this morning my thoughts on Romans 6:12-23—Paul's powerful message to us about what it means to be freed from sin. Paul uses a language in this passage that can be confusing, and unhelpful in our current context. He writes about being "freed from sin and enslaved to God." These are hard words to understand.
So I would like to read these verses from a wonderful paraphrase of the Bible by Eugene Peterson called "The Message." Here they are: But now that you've found you don't have to listen to sin tell you what to do, and have discovered the delight of listening to God telling you, what a surprise! A whole, healed, put-together life right now, with more and more of life on the way! Work hard for sin your whole life, and your pension is death. But God's gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus.
God wants this for each of us: A whole, healed, put-together life. Real life. Eternal life. Abundant life. The life delivered by Jesus. As he put it in John, "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly." That is the life that Jesus died to give us. The life that we are created to live.
But not the life that we always do live. Something gets in the way. And that is something, of course, we call "sin.” "Work hard for sin your whole life," Paul teaches us, "and your pension is death." So, how do we break free of this cycle and once again receive the whole, healed, put-together life delivered by Jesus?
Paul breaks it down into three steps. First, Paul teaches us that we have to understand the freedom of a Christian properly. Freedom is such an essential concept in the Christian life, and we see this in Paul's writing repeatedly. But Paul's concept of freedom – the Christian concept of freedom – is very different from the world's idea of freedom.
And it is important to look at the differences between the two before we look at how God helps us to live into this extraordinary gift of Christian freedom. (And, by the way, next Sunday being the Sunday closest to the 4th of July, I plan to continue wrestling with this whole topic of the freedom of a Christian next week.)
So what's the difference between our world's understanding of freedom and the Christian concept of freedom as taught by Paul? Paul tells us that we have been freed from sin. Our world and sinful self tell us we are free to sin. Paul tells us that because we have been freed from sin, we are free to serve God and to serve our neighbor. We are free from sin, so we are free to live for God and others.
Too often, the world believes that because they are free to sin, they are free from any obligation to our neighbor, those around us, and those around our world who do not have the same level of freedom, financially, politically, or socially. When we believe that we are free to sin, we are wrong. Because everyone who sins eventually becomes unable to do any differently.
Sin offers us a false freedom that eventually takes away our true freedom. Breaking free from sin begins with recognizing this. With realizing that, on our own, we are captive to sin and cannot free ourselves, as we often confess at the beginning of worship.
But then what? Look again at Paul's words: Now that you've found you don't have to listen to sin tell you what to do and have discovered the delight of listening to God telling you, what a surprise! A whole, healed, put-together life right now, with more of life on the way! We all listen to something all the time. But what are we listening to? What are we filling our minds with? What message is guiding us through our day?
Today, we are reminded that we don't have to listen to sin tell us what to do. Jesus sets us free from sin so that we can listen to God and follow Jesus so that we can truly love God and love our neighbor. So that we no longer must always serve our own needs and desires. We are free from that. Free to love and serve others without thinking about what is in it for us.
And this is a wonderful freedom, indeed, as we live a life of true freedom in service to God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. That is the life that Jesus came to give us. He gave up his freedom as the Son of God to give us this new and wonderful freedom. What a gift!
And this brings us to the third and final pearl of truth in this passage from Romans. When we stop listening to sin and discover the delight of listening to God, we receive a whole, healed, put-together life right now, with more life on the way. The theological word for this is "sanctification." It means that we are made holy, that is set apart for service to God. It is a process, a journey, into becoming increasingly the person God has created us to be to being controlled less and less by sin and more and more by God.
I love how Martin Luther describes this journey of sanctification: This life is not a being holy but a becoming holy; it is not a being well but a getting well; it is not a being but a becoming; it is not inactivity but practice. We are not what we ought to be, but we are getting there; the task is not yet accomplished and completed, but it is in progress and pursuit.
The end has not been reached, but we are on the way that leads to it. That is the journey of sanctification. It is a journey of becoming ourselves as God created us to be. In this journey, we are not alone, for we take it with the God who created us, His Son who redeemed us, and the Spirit who is in us. Plus, we take this journey of sanctification with other Christians because, honestly, it's too hard to take it alone.
And so, we give up a little of our Sunday morning to worship God. We give up a little of our worldly freedom to turn back to our Lord and our God to listen, to really listen, to him so that we are set back on the only road that leads to real life as God made us to live. The road that leads to a whole healed, put-together life. That is a Christian's freedom to live our lives for God and the world that God loves. Thanks be to God. Amen
Third Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Matthew 9:35-10:8
Title: Vision, Compassion, Gathering, Sending
Vision, Compassion, Gathering, Sending, that is the movement in the Gospel reading for this Sunday. It is also the movement of Jesus’ response to those who are harassed and helpless, of God’s interaction with His fractured and fallen creation, and of the sanctified Christian life as it lives by the Spirit of Jesus. It may also be the movement for your sermon this Sunday.
As He went throughout the cities and villages, Jesus saw. This is not a minor detail. Many people go through life wondering if anyone sees, if anyone notices. The crowds Jesus saw were “helpless and harassed” (v. 36; these verbs could be translated more literally “whipped/flayed” and “thrown down”). He noted they were like sheep without a shepherd, which meant they had neither protector nor provider.
Jesus does not name the source of their harassment, but it is not hard to imagine. Simply look around today. Some are tossed about by injustice, grief, and abuse of authority. Others are flayed by disease, economic strain, and isolation. Everyone is harassed by a sinful inclination to respond with (un)righteous anger fear, and self-righteousness.
The problem, in part, is many people do not see. Perhaps they cannot, having never put themselves in the position to see. Perhaps they will not, refusing to look outside their lives and bubbles. Contrast them (us) with Jesus. Jesus sees. He sees the crowds in the text. He sees their helplessness. He sees those who are harassing them, and He does not look away. This is not surprising, for He is the Son of the One who sees all things—good, bad, and ugly
Truly seeing others and their plight is a necessary beginning. But if being seen is not accompanied by being helped, it does not do much. This is the second movement in the text. Having seen the crowds, Jesus has compassion. He suffers with them (from the Latin, com·passio). In this sense, the suffering of Jesus is not limited to the events of Holy Week. It encompasses His entire ministry on this earth. Jesus came among us to suffer with us before He suffered on Golgotha for us.
+Jesus came among us to suffer with us before He suffered on Golgotha for us. We are not as good at suffering with others. Luther’s explanations to the fifth and eighth commandments come to mind. We are to fear and love God by helping and supporting our neighbors in every bodily need. We are to defend them, speak well of them, and put the best construction on everything they do. We fall short, which must not be easily excused even though it is true. But Jesus does not. He protects and provides for His people as the Good Shepherd they have been missing.
The compassion of Jesus, which arises from seeing the suffering of the crowds, leads Him to gather. He begins by gathering the twelve (they are first listed in Matthew’s Gospel here at the beginning of chapter ten). But He does not stop there. As Robert Kolb likes to say, we worship a God of conversation and community. That is, God continually speaks and continually gathers.
It is still a little odd to speak of gathering these days. Some congregations remain unable to gather in groups larger than nine. Others have resumed gathering, but not within six feet and not without facemasks. This points to an important aspect of the gathering Jesus does in this text. He does not gather the disciples for their own edification; not primarily, at least. He gathers them so He might send them.
Matthew 10:2 is the only time in Matthew’s Gospel where the twelve are called “apostles” (τῶν δώδεκα ἀποστόλων). In this instance, Jesus sends them to cast out demons and heal diseases It is not a stretch to say Jesus sent the Apostles to do what he had come to do: To see, to have compassion, to gather, and to send.
That is the continuing movement. Jesus continues to send His people to see others (especially the widow, the orphan, and all who suffer injustice) as human beings and fellow creatures of a loving God. He continues to send His people to have compassion on those who are helpless and harassed, to suffer with them, and to help them bear their burdens. He continues to send His people to speak words of life and forgiveness that create saving faith in the hearts of individuals and gather them together for life as His body. And He continues to send His people to continue sending others until all have heard and believed and come together in His name.
Last week the Gospel reading came from Matthew 28. We call it the Great Commission or Sending. In a sense, this week’s reading gives us the background of that text, for before there can be a sending, there has to be a gathering. Before there can be a gathering, there is compassion. Before compassion, there is the seeing. And it all starts with a gracious God through the work of the Holy Spirit.
Vision, Compassion, Gathering, and Sending are what God does through the Holy Spirit, which dwells in all who believe in Jesus as their Savior. Amen
Second Sunday after Pentecost 6/11/23
Text: Matthew 9:9-13
I don't know if you have noticed, but Jesus spends an awful lot of time with the poor and what society considered to be sinners; those who lived openly sinful lives and those who did not follow the ritual and traditions of worship as set forth by the Pharisees and teachers of the Law. Matthew was one of those people that, if you encountered, made a good Jew unclean, and thus, you avoided them like the plague. They were considered irredeemable, a waste of time.
I read a story this past week that I want to share with you, just a small part of this morning. A judge and a pastor were talking to each other. The topic of discussion was; can people change? The two were engaged in their ongoing debate about the possibility of personal transformation. The judge had been in office a long time and had seen many times the same people coming time after time. He had heard it all. He had seen so little change that he was, for the most part, pessimistic about the ability of a person to change.
The pastor knew that the judge was not a bigot, nor had a problem with anyone standing before him, for he had visited the judge's courtroom and watched him treat each of the accused persons brought before him with respect, courtesy, and, not infrequently, friendly familiarity. Few people escaped the system over which he presided, and those who did, he once explained, had either "moved, died, or just worn out!" His attitude was understandable.
"How can you believe in significant change?" he pushed. "Name one person, not in the Bible, that we both know who has changed - I mean, were genuinely transformed from immoral to moral, bad to good, complete nonbeliever to believer."
The pastor was silent for a moment as he thought about it. He knew that most of the changes in human life he saw were incremental at best, often barely perceptible, and he recognized that the judge could easily explain away anyone the pastor might suggest as an example. He could only say, "I have to believe people can escape whatever keeps them down and change into the person God wants them to be." I am in the business of hope."
I have told you this little story because not only do I believe that it reflects our view of life, but it reflects the views of the educated religious leaders of Jesus' time. So when they see Jesus summon a tax collector as a disciple and watch him eat with known sinners and tax collectors, the response is to shake their heads with disapproval. They, like so many people today, Christians included, more than likely said, "Those people will never be any different. Why is Jesus wasting his time with them?"
Jesus is not only undeterred by their lack of compassion and self-righteousness, I think he is fueled by it. He responds with two well-known sayings. He first quotes a passage from the Old Testament, "Those who are well do not need a physician, but those who are sick." Then, for good measure, he instructs them with God's words from the Hebrew Bible, "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice." He concludes his teaching moment with a clear statement of his mission: he has come to call sinners to God.
Just like today, those self-righteous religious people were not convinced that day or any other, for many of them continued to hound Jesus throughout his ministry. Their skepticism about the repentance of sinners and tax collectors ran unchecked through their conversations with him. Jesus was having none of it, for he was in the business of change. He truly desired mercy instead of sacrifice and other religious trappings, for he was mercy in the flesh.
Let us take a moment and look at verse 12, for without a good understanding of verse 12, we cannot truly understand verse 13. "Those who are well do not need a physician." That is true in life. We do not see our doctor unless we have a problem or think we do. When a person truly believes that the only way they can be cured is to listen to the doctor and trust them, the healing can begin.
Our spiritual lives are the same. Unless you genuinely believe you are suffering from the incurable disease of sin and spiritual emptiness, you will not be open to Jesus' healing words. To let Jesus do what he does best, you need to understand that he is the only cure. You have to get rid of all the baggage of works, of the belief that you have anything to do with pleasing God on your own, for we are told that even our best works are nothing but nasty bloody rags before God.
You must give up your worth before God so that he can come into your life, as he wants to, to change you. I think that is part of the problem some face. Although they know whatever change God makes in their life will be for the better, they do not want to let go of what is comfortable. And because of that, God cannot use them, and they end up missing the blessings that God wants them to have.
I am not saying that this life will be full of money, a beautiful house, and such things, for that might not be the blessing God wants to give you. His idea of blessing just might be peace in the situation you are now in. More than likely, the blessing you will receive is you will have a good relationship with God, knowing what your future holds. I am talking about having peace that cannot be taken away in life's worst storms. I am talking of mercy, as Jesus tells us in verse 13 of our text, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice.
Jesus is mercy personified. And because he is mercy, he requires mercy from those who call themselves followers of his. Just like last week, he is once more telling us that a person that calls themselves a follower of Jesus cannot separate their saving faith into compartments; the church and one for our regular life.
The Pharisees in Jesus' days could not comprehend this fact. And too often, neither do we. We want to escape the same-old constraints that are keeping us bound to bad habits, bad choices, and bad lives. But deep down inside, we are hopeless about the possibility of escape. And because of that, we have become focused on the impossibility of change in others.
With disdain and irritation, we too often look upon the sinners in our society, to our neighbors, thinking, "They'll never change. They're way too set in their ways." But Jesus requires a different response. He invites us to throw away our old worldly glasses and put on his so that we can see today what he saw that day; he called Matthew to follow him.
Only when you look through the lenses of God's Word will you see the same possibilities as Jesus saw in Matthew that day. It is only then that you will see in that unruly child, that person who is having family problems, that person who is battling the bottle or drugs, that moneygrubber, the lazy fool, the lustful reprobate, the same possibilities that Jesus saw in you when he called you to follow him.
But most importantly, only when you look through the lenses of God's Word will you see a reflection of yourself, a reflection of the self-centered sinner that lurks within all of us. Only then, when you know how similar you are in God's eyes, can you truly feel the love of Jesus and become the jubilant, holy companions of Christ that God wants us to be. Amen.
“How to talk about God and have it come out as sheer Gospel.”
This past week as I was preparing for my proclamation of God’s Word to you this morning, I decided to reread a section of Luther’s Large Catechism on the Trinity. This reading gave me the title for today’s Word, “How to talk about God and have it come out as pure Gospel.”
It reads, in part, talking about the Apostles Creed, the shortest of the Christian Creeds, unlike the Athanasian Creed, the longest and most technical of the historical Christian Creeds. Luther writes, “In these three articles, God has revealed and opened to us the most profound depths of his fatherly heart, his sheer, unutterable love. He created us for this very purpose, to redeem and sanctify us. Moreover, having bestowed everything in heaven and on earth, he has given us His Son and His Holy Spirit, through whom he brings us to Himself. We could never come to recognize the Father’s favor and grace were it not for the Lord Christ, who is a mirror of the Father’s heart. Apart from Jesus, we see nothing but an angry and terrible Judge. But neither could we know anything of Christ, had it not been revealed by the Holy Spirit.
It is interesting to note that Luther states that unlike the actual confession, which starts out with the “Father, then the Son, and last but not least the Holy Spirit” he reverses the order. First, Holy Spirit brings us to Christ, and then Christ brings us back to God, who, because of Jesus, is no longer the terrible finger-pointing Judge of the Law, but beloved Father.
So, on this day, the day, we celebrate the Trinity, we are not actually celebrating WHO God is but HOW God is. Sure, the WHO and the HOW are related, but when all is said and done, what really matters to you and me and every other sinner is the HOW of God.
This is what I mean; a hand is a hand. But if I hold out my hand with fingers closed, like this, you feel quite different than if I hold it out with fingers open. If I hold it with my fingers closed it is called a fist. Or if I hold it like this with my index finger extended, all you see is a finger, and whether pointed or wagging, you do not like it, not one little bit. It is an accusing hand. If I were to come over to you and poke you with my finger, you would probably shove my hand away or smack me. You see, the shape of my hand tells you whether my hand is good or bad.
When those you know that are not aware of the wonderful deeds of Jesus hear “God,” what do they see? I would say that if they thought deep enough, they would either see a fist. Or, at the very least, they see a wagging pointing accusatory finger.
Jesus anticipated that. That’s why, after telling us in today’s Gospel reading that “God so loved the world…” (Jn. 3:16), he quickly adds, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but” — surprise! — “that the world might be saved through him” (3:17).
While the actual act of saving us from God’s wrath happened when Jesus took the wrath of God, God’s fist, so to speak, on the cross, the actual people saving started to happen on Easter Sunday night. “Peace be with you,” Jesus said to those locked-in disciples, who were cowering for fear of all the fists out there. Then he showed them HIS hands. Fingers open. And in the middle? Those gaping holes.
A week later, it falls to Thomas — yes, that Thomas, Mr. Doubt himself — to put two and two together. “My Lord and my God,” he gasps. You could call this the Trinitarian Aha, the first Christian confession of faith recorded in the New Testament, God’s Word.
How had Jesus put it? Earlier, he had said, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father.” That is what Thomas suddenly gets. The open, embracing hands of Jesus are the open hands of the One who sent Him. The Fist of God is no longer a fist but an open hand.
In recognizing this, Thomas is saved from expecting nothing from God but the fist and the pointing accusatory finger to knowing the love of God, the open hand of God. Expectation, remember, is everything.
If God, as Fist is the God I believe in, then that’s the God I’ll spend my life reacting to — and, because of that, the God that I’ll be stuck with when all is said and done. Remember Adam after he had eaten the fruit? At that point, if the only God he could imagine is the Fist and or the Finger he would have to dodge or deflect to keep living?
So the God he got was exactly that. God the Finger, drilling straight through his whining accusations toward God, and they were accusations as he shifted the blame of his wrongdoing to God, “It is your fault, God, for the woman YOU gave me caused me to break your commandment not to eat the fruit,” God the Fist pushing him and Eve out of Eden. That is what he saw, and that is what he got; God the Fist.
Doubting Thomas on the other hand, out of his disbelief, got God the Open Hand. In Jesus, through Jesus, on account of Jesus — that’s how he got him. He learned that second Easter Sunday night to head into a world filled with fists and pointing fingers without fear of them any longer. He knew that the only hand that matters in the end, God’s hand, was precisely the position that we all have always ached to find it in. Wide open. The Father is waiting to welcome us for Jesus’ sake when the Holy Spirit brings us to faith in him.
That’s tremendously good news, the best ever. And that’s what today’s celebration of the Holy Trinity is really about; not the WHO as it is stated in meticulous, mind-numbing detail, the Athanasian Creed, but the HOW of God, Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit in the simplicity of Jesus’ open hands.
To keep the work of the Trinity going, you and I might try this week to surprise some folks by waving at them–you know, the open hand thing, unexpected, out of the blue. It could be they’ll wonder why we’re doing that. If by chance they ask, let’s tell them about our God. Their God, too, is the God of the open hand. Amen