If You Continue In My Word – Sermon for Reformation 2015

If You Continue In My Word

John 8:31-36

Reformation Sunday

October 25th/26th, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

I never really appreciated history until I started studying it at Seminary. Maybe that’s because I was finally studying areas of history thhere-I-stand-martin-lutherat interested me. Maybe it’s because for the first time I understood that I was studying the history of how thought, culture, and worldview developed rather than simply memorizing a series of names and dates. Maybe it’s simply the natural result of approaching the subject in my mid-20s instead of in my teens. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t until Seminary that I truly enjoyed studying the past. I mention that because we are celebrating Reformation Sunday, the commemoration of not only an isolated historical event, but the celebration of an entire era and movement in history. On October 31, 1517, the then monk Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. That event started a chain reaction of events that led to the church we are familiar with today. Certainly Luther wasn’t the only one involved, there were many other faithful men and women who contributed along the way, but if Doc Brown and Marty McFly were going to get into their DeLorean and go back in time to stop a single event from altering the course of Reformation history, that would be the one.

So here we sit, 498 years later. Here we sit in a church bearing the name of Luther not because we hold him in such high regard, but because of the way he relentlessly pointed people to the Gospel of forgiveness and reconciliation. Here we sit nearly half a millennium later about to sing “A Mighty Fortress” in front of a chancel decorated with Luther’s seal. Here we sit celebrating the well-known Reformation confession of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, revealed through Scripture alone. Here we sit, a living object lesson illustrating the point Jesus is trying get his disciples to understand in today’s Gospel reading. “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” “If you abide in my word,” says Jesus. Any good Lutheran would ask, “What does this mean?” What does it mean to abide in the Word of God? Some translations render this phrase as, “If you continue in my Word.” Abide. Continue. These are words that describe an ongoing reality – and that’s precisely the point Jesus is trying to make.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll almost certainly say it again, so I’ll say it today.  I often feel like we live in a world that approaches life like it’s a movie. I feel like we keep waiting for the final credits to roll. It’s like we engage problems or difficulties in our lives as if there will come a point when everything will wrap up neatly at the end. We approach politics as if once we get the right person elected all our nation’s or our world’s problems will be fixed. I remember as a kid there was a sweeping victory for the Republican Party in Congress or the House of Representatives or something. I remember because I was in the car the next day listening to Rush Limbaugh singing along to James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” He was celebrating that now that his people were in charge, the political fortunes of this country would begin to look up. Fast forward a few decades to the inauguration of Barrack Obama, and the same tune was being sung by the other side of the political aisle. The audacity of hope. We will finally see some real change. Now, almost 8 years later, political division runs more deeply than ever. Because life goes on. Getting the right person into political office in next year’s Presidential Election, or in any other election, is not the end. Time marches forward.

We often approach marriage in the same way, as if life is a romantic comedy in which bride and groom move happily along to the altar, overcoming whatever obstacles stand in their way until they finally say I do. And then the credits roll. At least they do in the movie, but real life keeps going. Real love and real marriage last well beyond the dancing at the reception. The words Happily Ever After may be spelled out in calligraphy on the wedding album, but once that evening is over the bride and groom must continue as husband and wife, for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health, as long as they both shall live. You speak words of promise on your wedding day, and then spend the rest of your life continuing in those words. Abiding in those words.

“If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the Truth will set you free.” Luther may have driven the nail into the church door 500 years ago, and there may have been some needed and important changes that happened in the wordchurch as a result.  But here we are today – half a millennium later. The credits have not yet rolled on the story of God’s Church. Time marches forward; life goes on. Being a child of God is a journey, not a destination. It’s a journey through the trials and temptations of a fallen world. It’s a journey through the sadness and heartache of watching loved ones suffer, maybe even die. It’s a journey through a world filled with injustice and hatred and bigotry and betrayal. It a journey through a world that, at every turn, seems to take the idea of a loving and merciful God and throw it back in your face. “How?” we ask ourselves? “How can I believe in a loving God when my child has cancer?” “How can I believe in a loving God when I see those whose lives have been ripped apart by abuse?” “How can I believe in a loving God when I see the way people in Syria are being driven from their homes?” “How can I believe in a loving God when there is so much evil and pain in the world?”

Jesus’ answer to those questions is the same words he spoke to the Jews who had believed in him. “If you continue in my Word, you will know the truth.” To continue in God’s Word means to live in it, to study it, to meditate on it, to allow it to be the lens through which we view reality. To abide in God’s Word is to listen when he says to you through that Word, “In the world you will have tribulation, but take heart, for I have overcome the world.” Or when he compares the suffering of this life to the refiner’s fire so that the “genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”[1] Or when He assures you that the “sufferings of this present age are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.”[2] To continue in the Word of God is to know the truth that sets you free. And here is the truth: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.”[3] We may not see the final results of that yet, but that promise has been given to us in His Word. If you continue in that Word, you will know that truth, and that truth will set you free from the burden of doubt. Yes, the world can be a painful place to live right now, but we are waiting for the new heavens and the new earth. Because of what Jesus has done for us on the cross, we know the truth of our salvation, and we are free to be people of hope in a world of sadness. For the truth has set us free.

But perhaps we misunderstand this freedom. Perhaps we confuse freedom with autonomy. Perhaps we try to use our freedom like a spoiled toddler always demanding his way. Or, better yet, perhaps we attempt to use our freedom like a new high school graduate who has left home for the first time. Without the watchful eye of parental supervision, these young men and women often give into the whims and temptations of the flesh. They are “free” to do whatever they want for the first time in their lives, or so they think. But their “freedom” often ends in crippling debt, failed college classes, STDs, broken relationships, or any number of emotional scars. Why is this the case? It’s because “doing whatever you want” is a terrible definition of freedom, and it’s certainly not the freedom that Jesus is talking about today.

At the District Convention this past June one of the presenters told a story about freedom. He told of a young eaglet who fell out of her nest and into a gopher hole. She was raised with the gophers, living in the tunnels. Of course, her developing talons and beak were not great for tunneling and digging, but she did the best she could. She didn’t really enjoy the vegetarian gopher diet, and her growing wings made navigating the tunnels harder and harder with each day that she grew. Then, one day, she found a tunnel that led to the surface. She crawled out of that tunnel, covered in matted dirt, and when the fresh air hit her nostrils, she somehow knew exactly what to do. She knew what those wings were for. She spread them out and soared into the heavens. She was finally free, free to live the life she was designed to live, soaring majestically through the clouds, the eyes of a huntress Bald_Eagle_strike_Robert_OToole_Photography_2012spotting her prey from high above, the sharp talons snatching fresh fish instead of whatever it is gophers eat. Her freedom was found not in some mythical autonomy to be whatever she wanted. No, it was found in being who she was created to be.

That is true freedom. That is the freedom Jesus is talking about today. That is the freedom that comes from abiding the Word of God, from continuing in His Word. You don’t set a fish free from the water. You don’t take a fish out of the tank and put it on the sidewalk and tell it, “Now your free to go wherever you want and to be whatever you want and to do whatever you want! Go be free little fish!” To do that is to kill the fish. No, the fish’s freedom is found in the water – in being who it was created to be.  So also our freedom in Christ. “If you continue in my word, you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” What truth will we know from the Word of God? We will know the truth of our sin and our salvation. We will know the truth that Luther recognized and posted as the first of those 95 Theses all those years ago: “The entire life of the believer is lived in repentance.” We will know that our righteousness comes to us as a gift from God, the righteousness of God himself credited to our account. We will know the truth that there is nothing we could ever hope to do to save ourselves. Trying to win our own salvation would be like a fish trying to live as an eagle or an eagle trying to live as a fish. The fish would suffocate in the eagle’s nest, the eagle would drown in the fish’s bed. Their freedom is found in living as God created them to be.

Our freedom is in the same place – living as the people God created us to be. Even more importantly, our freedom is found in living as the people our Lord has redeemed us to be, continuing in his Word of forgiveness, abiding in the words of new creation spoken over us in the water of baptism. Our freedom is found in confessing our sin, being free from the burden of guilt that would suffocate to us. Our freedom is found in forgiving those who have sinned against us, being free from wallowing in the bitterness and hatred that would drown us. Our freedom is found in spreading the wings of compassion and living in self-sacrifice toward the people around us, providing for those in need, providing for the future generations of Christians who will be fed in this church and school for years to come. Our freedom is not an excuse to selfish living; our freedom is finally being released from shallow and short-sighted living of the world to live as the people we were created to be, to soar above the pettiness and bitterness of the world and, trusting in our forgiveness, show what the Apostle Paul calls a more noble way – the way of love.

For the credits haven’t yet rolled. Life goes on, and will continue to go on until the day our Lord decides to return and bring us home. Until then, we continue in his Word. We continue in the message of the Reformation – Faith Alone, Grace Alone, Scripture Alone, Christ Alone. As Jesus said, Because we continue in His Word, we know the truth. And the truth will make us free.

[1] 1 Peter 1:7

[2] Romans 8:18

[3] 1 John 3:8

God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized: The Seventh Commandment

411fda32-7e95-42ab-9528-4c6b78bf0cce720e06ee-684c-4f6b-93c4-9b0772783cf0 (2)One of my favorite children’s books is Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree. The familiar story recounts the many ways that a tree provides for a boy she loves. He provides the boy with a place to play in his youth, apples to sell in young adulthood, and wood to build a home and a boat. When the boy has taken everything the tree has to give, leaving nothing but a stump, the tree still finds joy in providing the boy with a place to sit in his old age. Each time the tree gives something else to the boy, the book says, “And the tree was happy.” The boy who took everything from the tree discovered that he never had enough – he always wanted something more. The tree who lovingly gave to the boy found repeated happiness.

This is precisely the point of the Seventh Commandment. The commandment against stealing covers more than giving yourself the “five finger discount” on that candy bar in the checkout lane. It covers much more than breaking into another person’s home to take their stuff. It is concerned with our attitude toward possessions in general.

In the Large Catechsim, Luther applies this commandment to both employers and employees. He writes that “thievery is the most common craft and the largest guild on earth” [LC, TC.228]. He speaks of business owners who rob their customers through dishonest measurements and false advertising; he speaks of business owners who rob their employees through unfair wages and working conditions; he speaks of employees who rob their employers through laziness or half-hearted effort on the job; he speaks of governments who rob their citizens under a cloak of legality; he speaks of citizens who rob their government through hiding income or other deceitful reporting.

In short, he speaks about how selfish and self-centered behavior destroys relationships. Our Lord created us to live in community – people gathered together as families, families gathered as communities, communities gathered as nations. Within these communities, it is our duty “not to harm our neighbors, to take advantage of them, or to defraud them by any faithless or underhanded business transaction. Much more than that, [we] are also obligated faithfully to protect [our] neighbors’ property and to promote and further their interests, especially when they get money, wages, and provisions for doing so” [LC, TC 233].

This commandment addresses the war between greed and giving, a war which is raging inside the heart of each baptized child of God. As our Synodical President has noted in A Little Book on Joy, our Lord would have us experience the joy of giving. The Apostle Paul says that godly generosity produces hilarity in our hearts [2 Cor. 9:7]. The love of money renders God’s children cheap and joyless, often under the false pretense of responsibility [Harrison, “The Joy of Giving”]. The Seventh Commandment’s prohibition against stealing is by extension a prohibition against the love of money, for like the little boy in The Giving Tree, the love of money will always leave us joyless and unsatisfied. How many relationships have been torn apart by greed? How many marriages have broken down over money? How many hours of work have been ruined by economic hand-wringing? How much joy has avarice sucked out of our lives?

The Seventh Commandment calls us to a godly perspective of the material things of this world. They are gifts from God given to people to be used in service of others. We are not to destroy our relationship with God or with the people around us by dishonest or manipulative gain. Those relationships are too important for that; they are a gift from God to be cared for and not so casually cast aside. The things of this world are not ours by right; they are gifts from God. How we use the things of this creation is not left up to us; we are stewards of God’s creation. We are called to be servants to others, not slaves to things, for it is in loving service to others that we experience the joy God has in store for our earthly relationships.

When we ignore this built-in dynamic to creation, the result is joyless relationships in which we are constantly wondering who is ripping me off. That is not the life our Lord has in mind for us. There is no joy like watching your child, spouse, or parent open the perfect gift you gave them for Christmas. Such is the joy of giving. Such is the joy the Seventh Commandment has in mind when it tells us not to steal other people’s things, but to find joy in helping them to improve and protect what God has given them.

God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized: The Sixth Commandment

LSB Icon_066 (2)Anyone who has visited one of the National Parks has probably heard some form of the slogan: “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.” The goal is for each park visitor to leave the park in good condition for future visitors by not leaving graffiti behind or taking the sea shells or wild flowers. The slogan asks people to think beyond immediate gratification to the wellbeing of the park and the future enjoyment of other visitors.

The Sixth Commandment is cut from the same cloth. It is God’s way of teaching us that sexuality is not simply a means for personal satisfaction; it is a gift from him designed to be shared with another. Of all the commandments, the one about God’s gift of sexuality is the most often treated as being only concerned with what people can’t do. More than any other commandment, it is treated as if the only reason it exists is so that God can make life miserable or punish people for being bad.

That is not the case. Like the other commandments, its primary concern is telling us who God created us to be and how we are designed to work. Like the other commandments of the second table, it speaks to the different relationships we are given with others. Rather than getting bogged down in the many ways this commandment could be broken, God’s children are called to embrace the gift and freedom that this commandment brings into our lives and relationships.

Yes, the Sixth Commandment is about sexual freedom. Despite the common view of marriage as limiting sexuality, marriage actually frees God’s gift of sexuality to be what it was created to be. God’s gift of sexuality is designed to be a special way in which a man and a woman give themselves entirely to the other physically as part of a unique relationship unlike any other.

While much of popular culture embraces the notion of “casual sex,” the emotional bond created in a sexual union cannot be denied. Think of the emotional pain that follows not only a divorce, but the ending of any sexual relationship. It is no mere coincidence that even in a sexually permissive culture like our own infidelity is still taboo. Even Hollywood recognizes this bond. How many movies or television shows are based around the premise of two people being “friends with benefits” until one of them recognizes the strong bond between them.

The undeniable bond created by a sexual union may be the source of many problems for those who are trying to live in a promiscuous culture, but it is helpful in its intended context: marriage. Sex is created to be one way that husbands and wives remain committed to each other through the many ups and downs of life together. This “adhesive” quality of sex is its strength, not a necessary evil that must be dealt with as one moves from bed to bed.  The very quality our world views as one of the biggest burdens associated with sex is in fact one of its greatest qualities in the eyes and design of God.

This bond is not merely hypothetical. It expresses itself in the birth of children, which is the natural result of a sexual relationship. While humans throughout history have spent countless hours trying to discover new ways to have sexual relationships while avoiding the “risk” of children, the simple fact remains that the birth of children is woven into the fabric of human sexuality. This too this is a good thing! Joining together to raise children draws husbands and wives together. Godly sexuality is designed to help God’s people focus on the needs of others by binding a man and a woman to one another in a unique life-long commitment and by joining them together as they raise the children that result from such a union.

Much more could be said about the way sin has ruined this great gift of God.  The resources are certainly out there for men and women who want to discover more fully how sex outside marriage, homosexual sex, pornography, or other sexual sins affect the whole life of a person. Additionally, the effects of the Fall are seen beyond temptations to sexual sins. There are also resources for those whose godly sexual relationships (through no fault of their own) have not resulted in the gift of children, or for those who have never known the gift of marriage.

But sin’s corruption of a gift does not destroy what that gift was first created to be. Sexuality remains a great gift of God designed to bind husband and wife together in a companionship unlike any other human relationship. The Sixth Commandment is not about what you can’t do. It is a gift from God, designed to be part of a lifelong human relationship unlike any other.

God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized: The Fifth Commandment

gift of lifeThe TV show Seinfeld provided laughter in many homes for 172 episodes. For almost a decade, America watched the show about nothing. Those who remember when Seinfeld aired its last episode likely remember the disappointment that followed in the hearts of many of its most loyal fans. At the end of it all, the four characters wind up in prison for failing to help another person who was being mugged. They violated the “Good Samaritan” Law, and their inaction resulted in incarceration. The show about nothing ended with the characters in trouble for doing nothing.

The Fifth Commandment speaks a similar message to the baptized children of God. Not only are we prohibited from ending life that we do not have the authority to end, we are called to be active in our support and defense of life. With regard to the ending of life, it is important to note that the commandment is not simply “You shall not kill,” but “You shall not murder.” The Fourth Commandment dealt with authority. Paul makes it clear in Romans 13 that the government has authority to take life in defense of life, to send soldiers and police out to defend the lives of its citizens and to curb the effects of evil in the world. Such ending of life is not murder, but is the justice of God meted out in this world.

The Fifth Commandment forbids us from taking life without authority. While the Bible certainly has examples of God using Israel or other nations to enact his divine justice by ending lives, individual Christians are told not to seek revenge for personal grievances, but to turn it over to God [Romans 12:19]. Other instances of ending life without authority are far more common than vengeance killing in our day and age. Our world as a whole condones the ending of unborn and aging life. It is common to hear of a person taking his or her own life. We have not been given the authority to end life in such circumstances, but are called to be people of mercy who maximize care for those who suffer from depression, an unplanned pregnancy, or the loss of abilities that comes with old age.

God’s children are called to protect and defend the gift of life, even the lives of our enemies.  This godly love for life comes from the realization that each day of our lives is a gift. It comes with the Psalmist who beholds the majesty of the universe and asks, “What is man that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You care for him?” [Psalm 8:4]. It comes from the humble confession that I am not as in control of my existence as I like to believe I am. I do not cause my heart to beat or my lungs to work – these are gifts from God. Each day is a gift from God. Life itself is a gift from God, and we as his people are called to defend this gift in ourselves as well as in others.

Not only are we called to defend life in this commandment, but also we are called to honor the living. We are called not only to avoid the ending of another’s life, but also to avoid the anger or hatred of heart that would lead to such an action of the hand [1 John 3:15]. We are called to avoid killing another by tongue or speech [Matthew 12:36], by speaking words that would kill another person’s spirit or drive them to take their own life. The sinful tongue is full of poison, and its bite can be fatal [James 3:8]. Rather than using our tongues to make the life of another person miserable, we are called to speak words of kindness and forgiveness, for these are the words that Jesus has spoken to us.

While most people make it from cradle to grave without actively ending the life of another human being, no one goes that time without speaking hurtful words or harboring hateful thoughts. Thanks be to God for the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Thanks be to God that Jesus is in heaven now speaking words that give life, words that defend us, words that cover our sin [1 John 2:1]. Because such words are spoken of us, we speak such words of others. Because we have been given the gift of life, we treat our life and the lives of others as the gift that it is, supporting and defending it at every turn.

God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized: The Fourth Commandment

Luther Parents (2)

There’s an important distinction to be made in life between power and authority. Power is the ability to act; authority is the right to act. There are literally billions of people in the world who have the power to use a knife to cut open another human being, but that doesn’t mean they have the authority. Rather, licensed surgeons have the authority to cut open another human being while performing surgery. The difference between surgery and assault is one of authority. The same could be said of police officers or soldiers and their weapons. The power or ability to do something is not the same thing as the authority or right to do something.

The fourth commandment deals with authority. It addresses how God’s children are to treat those in authority over us in this life and how God’s children are to treat others over whom they have authority. There is a popular tendency to distrust authority, reject authority, or act as if I am the only authority in my own life. While such attitudes are the understandable result of the many ways that sinful people have abused authority over time, they display a lack of appreciation for godly authority. The Law of God shows us how we work best, how humanity works best, and how families and relationships work best.  Therefore, the baptized children of God rejoice in the gift of authority, recognizing that God himself is the one who put authority into this creation for our good.

The most basic authority God has established in creation is that of the family. The authority of governments, teachers, doctors, etc. is derived from the authority of the family. When God first created people he put them in families. Every person is born into a family. When families live in communities they organize themselves into governments, appoint educators to share the parents’ teaching responsibility, raise up doctors to share the parents’ responsibility to keep their children healthy, etc. But we should not forget that when God places a new life into this creation, he gives the care of that life first into the hands of the child’s mother and father. Those individuals whom parents enlist to help care for their child ultimately draw their authority from the home.

The fourth commandment teaches God’s children to receive this authority as a gift. We do this first by honoring the authority that the father and mother have over their children. Children honor their parents and obey them, for God has placed the wellbeing of that child into their hands. Likewise, even as adults the baptized children of God obey the authorities in our lives: the government with its tax laws and traffic laws, bosses and managers who require that a coversheet be placed on all TPS Reports, or whatever other authority we find over ourselves. This authority is a necessary part of people living together in community.

The baptized children of God also honor the gift of authority by not abusing it when we find ourselves in a position of authority over someone else.  Parents use their God-given authority to care for the physical needs of their children by providing food, clothing, shelter, medicine, and the like. Parents also have authority to care for the spiritual needs of their children by remembering them in their prayers, bringing them to the services of God’s house, teaching them God’s Word, and the like. Rather than lazily allowing someone else to care for their children or selfishly giving in to the desire to have their children “like” them or consider them “cool” parents, God’s people are called to honor their authority and take their responsibility for the wellbeing of their children seriously.

Likewise, bosses or managers or police officers or politicians are not to use their authority as a means to abuse those in their care. Instead, the authority is used for the protection and wellbeing of those entrusted to them. Authority is never given for the sake of the ones with authority, but always for the best interests of the one who has been entrusted to their care. God has established a hierarchy in his creation: some govern, some are governed; some lead, some are led. This hierarchy and the authority entrusted to certain people in it are intended to ensure that all people can live in peace and without fear of having their property or their person harmed. The baptized children of God honor his gift of authority when they take seriously any authority that has been given to them, using it as it was designed and for the betterment of the people under them.

God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized: The Third Commandment

wordKids learn from an early age that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. The food eaten early in the day gives one energy for the day’s tasks. But while breakfast may be the most important meal of the day, it is not the only one. People eat throughout the day. Some people, like myself, would prefer to “graze” throughout the day rather than sitting down and eating a few big meals. Others like the big farmhouse breakfast, hearty sandwich for lunch, and 5 course dinner. Whatever the case may be, healthy people take time to eat. If we didn’t eat, our bodies would not have the strength necessary to fight disease. We would not have the strength to accomplish whatever tasks lay before us. We need sustenance if we are going to make it through the days, months, and years of our lives.

The Third Commandment deals with sustenance, not of our bodies, but of our souls. The new creation given to us in the water of baptism feeds on the Word of God. Without consistent time in that word, our souls will become weakened and more susceptible to the temptations of the devil. Our Father in heaven knows we need this continued time in his Word to survive, so he has given us the 3rd Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.” As Paul tells us, things are made holy through the Word of God and prayer [1 Timothy 4:5]. The Sabbath day, then, is a time set aside to be in God’s Word and in prayer.

As with the rest of the commandments, this is a gift, not a curse. The Third Commandment is tantamount to a parent telling a child to be sure to eat a good breakfast before going on a field trip. The parent knows that if the child doesn’t eat before going to the zoo with her class then she will not have the energy to make it all the way back to the giraffe habitat. The parent’s commandment to eat is given for the benefit of the child; it is not given simply because the parent needs the emotional fulfillment of seeing the child eat the breakfast that mom worked hard to prepare. What is at stake is the health and wellbeing of the child, not the fragile psyche of the parent.

So also the gift of the 3rd Commandment. God’s children are called to set aside time to worship God and be fed by his Word not because he somehow needs it to survive. It is not as if God’s self-esteem is so low that without human praise he begins to become somehow less God. The Third Commandment is not ultimately about God; it is about his children. It is about the baptized. It is about the people of God having the strength needed to make it through the challenges and trials of everyday life. It would foolish be to attempt to drive Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica without stopping for gas. You’ll never make it. You need to replenish your fuel if you’re going to make it that far. So also God’s children need the regular refueling of Word and Sacrament. The gift of baptism brings us into the Christian life so that we can spend the rest of our days living in that baptismal grace, “fueling up” on God’s Word so that we can make it all the way to our eternal destination.

In his small catechism Luther explained the Third Commandment like this: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” We hold it sacred because without it our faith is lost. We hold it sacred because it is the heavenly food that nourishes us from day to day. We hold it sacred because it presents to us time and time again the honest truth about our sin and the sweet release of our salvation. The Third Commandment in the life of the baptized is a gift, the gift of spiritual nourishment and renewal, the gift of God’s Word.

Unity in Christ – Sermon for Sept. 27/28, 2015

Maintaining the Unity

Ephesians 4:1-6

17th Sunday After Trinity

September 27th/28th, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

            Family is a unique gift from God.  It is a tremendously important and fundamental part of this creation because it is a place where you are shaped in a way unlike any other. You can choose your friends, but you don’t choose your family. You get the parents you get, you get the kids you get, you get the siblings you get. You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit. Each person in the family comes with a personality all their own, and one of the great gifts of God is that he has placed us from birth into a situation where we have to learn how to get along with other people. He creates us to live lives of love and service, and has built into creation a place where we do this from before we learn to walk. From our earliest days we are learning what it means to live together with others, to get along with and appreciate people who might have different interests or passions. We learn that, in spite of our differences, it is what we have in common that is most important. The bond header-familythat holds family together is powerful. Two people who may have next to nothing in common and who might have never even been friends under different circumstances might end up with the closest of relationships because they are brothers. That’s just part of being in a family. Something you have no control over inextricably binds your life and existence to the life and existence of another person: your parent, your child, your sibling.  No matter what our differences might be, we’re family.  And that counts for something.

Paul is writing of something similar in the section of his Epistle to the Ephesians read just a few moments ago. In those verses Paul exhorts the Ephesians, and us, to walk in a manner worthy of our calling. He is talking about what it means to be a member of the household of God, to be a child of God, part of his family.  It is a family we were brought into through adoption in the water of baptism. There is tremendous joy found in this family, but like our earthly families, we don’t get to choose our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Yet also like our earthly families, the unity we have with them is a special gift from God that should not be lightly cast aside. This is a unity that is found in Christ. In Baptism, each of us is individually united to Christ. I no longer live, Christ lives in me. But there is only one Jesus, which means that all who are united to him are also united to each other. ephesians4-5It is a unity we possess as the family of God. Communion works the same way. When I feast on the body and blood of Jesus, I am united to that body and blood; I am united to him. But there is only one Jesus, which means that I am also united to every other Christian who has been united to our Lord in this blessed sacrament. “For there is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”[1]

This is a unity that God himself creates and that God himself maintains. It is not some sort of contrived unity like the kind practiced by those who pretend that denominations don’t have different confessions. There is a different word for unity of doctrine. The Latin word is concordia, like the Book of Concord that contains all our official teachings or like Concordia University where those teachings are passed on to future church workers. No, Paul is not writing about concordia, but unitas. It is not unity of doctrine. It’s not unity we create at all. Some unity is man-made. Take, for instance, the old saying, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Sometimes, when circumstances demand it, people voluntarily put aside their differences and temporarily unite themselves toward a cause. But such alliances are temporary by nature. Such alliances are forced. Paul is writing not about unity we create, but unity we maintain. The unity is already ours in Christ. It is true unity, unity that overrides our personal differences, unity that comes from God himself.  Spartans or Wolverines, jocks or drama kids, republicans or democrats, Ford or Chevy, we are one in the body of Christ. Paul encourages the Ephesians, and us, to walk in a manner worthy of the calling we all have together as the body of Christ, and which we each have individually as members of that body.  According to the Apostle Paul, this worthiness includes several things.

First, he calls us to walk in humility and gentleness. Humility doesn’t come naturally to us, but it is a necessary part of any lasting relationship.  There are many in our world who consider humility a weakness. But without humility, relationships are doomed to fail. One person I read commented that humility is the “deep sense of one’s own smallness and insignificance,” an attitude that Paul says Christians are called to cultivate. Walking in humility means that we do not consider ourselves better than others. When we consider ourselves to be better than the people around us, we are prone to short tempers and sharp criticisms. We will be quick to condemn and slow to help. Such attitudes are lethal to the unity we possess as the family of God. C.S. Lewis said that the result of being in God’s presence is that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. That’s the humility Paul is encouraging. Rather than indulging rivalry and bitterness, we walk in humility and gentleness. We see our own need before God, our own sin, our own shortcomings, and our own inability to save ourselves. We see the great z13gift of reconciliation we have been given through the death of Christ. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly. He died for me. And he died for you too. We are each forgiven, each renewed in Christ, not because of what we have done, but because of what has been done for us. Living in that reality breeds the humility that Paul is talking about, humility that leads to gentleness in conduct, gentleness in conversation. When I know what my Lord has done for me, how could I not live in gentleness toward others?  After all, he has died for them too. If that person sitting next to me is someone that Jesus was willing to be tortured for, executed for, someone for whom Jesus left heaven in order that they might spend eternity with him in paradise, who am I to treat them poorly? No, in humility, we live in gentleness toward each other.

Paul also points out that we are called to live in patience toward each other. Like humility, patience is challenging. I don’t know if you saw it last week or not, by one of my friends on Facebook shared a part of an interview with a New York City school teacher. He commented on how differently he approached his own kids compared to the way he approached his students. With his students, there was a healthy disconnect. He could look at a student who had some personality quirk that got on his nerves and deal with it for 45 minutes a day. He could look at a student who wasn’t living up to her potential, and while he worked hard to pull that potential out of her, eventually the decision was hers. If she steadfastly refused to apply herself, he could move on as a teacher and find the next student who needed help. It’s different with your own kids; with your own kids, there’s a different level of emotional investment. It is frustrating to see someone not living up to their potential, but it is twice as hard to be patient with that person if they are your own child. It is hard to deal with the quirks of a coworker, but it is doubly hard to deal with the quirks of someone who lives in your house, who you see all the time. It takes patience to live in a family.

The same is true for the family of God. It is one thing to patiently bear with the sinful actions of the unbelieving world – for we have low expectations where that is concerned. But the call is to live patiently within the family of God, maintaining the unity we have been given here, and that can be more difficult. When someone we don’t care about says something hurtful toward us, it can be easily dismissed. When someone in the family says something hurtful, that’s harder to deal with. When another member of the family pokes fun at us, or belittles us, that can be harder to stomach. And in those situations, the person who said something hurtful should absolutely repent. But the offended person is called to forgive, to live in unity, to patiently bear their brothers and sisters in Christ with all their faults and all their flaws. That’s not to say there is never a time to exercise “tough love,” because there certainly is. But those cases are the exception, not the rule. The rule is patience. The general approach to our life in the family of God is putting up with one another in order to preserve the unity we have in Christ.

There is much to be excited about at Saint John these days. Yes we are still operating with a deficit budget, but the deficit is less than anticipated because overall giving is up. We have a plan in place to pay off the new gym floor before next spring. And finances are only part of the story. There is more excitement to be found in the relationships and atmosphere around our Church and School. We are certainly not perfect; no place this side of heaven filled with sinners ever could be.  But our principal received a phone call this past week from a parent who was visiting our gym from another school for a volleyball game. She wanted to let our school know that she was impressed excuses-quotes-1when she saw one of our students helping a little girl from the other school find the restroom. One of the teachers from Fraser public schools who taught here briefly this year took a job in a different school district. She made sure to tell each of our teachers before she left that this is a special place, that the students and parents and teachers create a welcoming environment. There are certainly more examples I could draw from, but the point is that we are blessed as a congregation.

But those blessings can disappear as quietly as they came. If we do not walk in ways that maintain the unity we have, division will soon follow. If we are a people who do no walk in humility and gentleness, if we are a people who hold grudges and wallow in bitterness, the atmosphere will change. If we are a people who are impatient with those around us, the atmosphere will change. The unity is not ours to create, but we are called to maintain it by living in humble repentance and bearing with one another in love. We are all in this together, united together as the body of Christ.  So let us continue to confess our sin together. Let us continue to receive the gift of God’s forgiveness together. Let us continue to join together at the table of our Lord. Let us continue to sing together, to pray with each other, to pray for each other, to have coffee and dounts together, and to study God’s Word together. Let us walk in a manner worthy of the unity we possess in Christ. After all, we’re family here – the family of God.

[1] Ephesians 4:5-6