Abiding in Christ – the heart of the Augsburg Confession

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Sermon for the Festival of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession

Romans 10:5-17  +  John 15:1-11

You’ve already confessed 19 articles—most of the Augsburg Confession—today, in English, which Dr. Christian Beyer read out loud, in German, in the presence of Emperor Charles V and the Lutheran princes 487 years ago today. There are two more articles in the main part, and seven others that deal with the corrections the Lutherans had made to certain abuses that Rome had introduced. For the sake of time and because Article XX provides a perfect climax for our celebration today, listen to just one more article, if you would.

ARTICLE XX—Faith and Good Works

Our churches are falsely accused of forbidding good works. For their publications on the Ten Commandments and other writings demonstrate that they have provided a useful account and admonition concerning true Christian estates and works, of which little was taught before now. Instead, people were driven in almost every sermon to childish, useless works, such as rosaries, the worship of saints, becoming monks, making pilgrimages, observing appointed fasts, holy days, brotherhoods, etc. Our counterparts no longer praise such useless works quite as highly as before; in addition, they have also now learned to speak about faith—which they never used to preach about at all. But now they teach that we do not become righteous before God by works alone; they add faith in Christ to it. “Faith and works make us righteous before God,” they say. This way of speaking may bring more comfort than teaching people to rely solely on works.

Now, since the teaching about faith—which is the chief part in the Christian life—has not been promoted (as must be admitted), but only the teaching of works has been preached in every place, this is the instruction about faith that has taken place among us:

First, that our works cannot reconcile us with God or gain favor with Him. Rather, this happens only through faith, if a person believes that our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, who alone is the Mediator to appease the Father. Whoever pretends to achieve this and to merit grace through works despises Christ and seeks his own way to God, contrary to the Gospel.

This teaching about faith is openly and clearly treated by Paul in many passages, especially in Eph. 2: “By grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves; it is God’s gift—not by works, so that no one should boast,” etc. It can be demonstrated from Augustine that no new understanding is being introduced in this matter. He diligently treats this subject and also teaches the same thing, that we obtain grace and become righteous before God through faith in Christ and not through works, as his entire book On the Spirit and the Letter proves.

Although this teaching is sorely despised by inexperienced people, it is found to be highly comforting and salutary to the poor, terrified consciences. For the conscience cannot find rest and peace through works, but only through faith, if it concludes for itself with certainty that it has a gracious God for Christ’s sake, as Paul also says in Romans 5: “Since we have been justified through faith, we have rest and peace with God.”

This comfort was not formerly promoted in sermons, but the poor consciences were driven to their own works and instructed in various kinds of works. Some were driven by their conscience into monasteries, with the hope of gaining favor there through the monastic life. Some invented other works with which to merit grace and make satisfaction for sins. Many of these learned from experience that peace was not attained by these things. Therefore, it became necessary to preach and diligently to promote this teaching about faith in Christ, so that it may be known that God’s grace is grasped only through faith, apart from merit.

People are also instructed that we are not referring here to the kind of faith that the demons and the wicked also have; they, too, believe the history—that Christ suffered and rose again from the dead. Rather, we are referring to true faith, which believes that we obtain grace and forgiveness of sins through Christ, and which now knows that it has a gracious God through Christ. Thus it knows God, calls upon Him and is not without God, as are the heathen. For the devil and the wicked do not believe this article—the forgiveness of sins. Therefore they are hostile to God, unable to call upon Him or hope for any good from Him. As noted above, this is how the Scripture speaks about faith, and does not call “faith” that knowledge that the demons and wicked men have. For this is what is taught about faith in Hebrews 11, that faith is not only to know the history, but to have confidence in God, to accept His promises. And Augustine also reminds us that we should understand the word “faith” in the Scriptures to mean confidence in God, that He is gracious to us, and not only to mean knowing the history as the demons also know it.

It is further taught that good works should and must be done—not that one should trust in them in order to merit grace by them, but they should be done for God’s sake and to His praise. Faith always grasps only grace and the forgiveness of sins. And since the Holy Spirit is given through faith, the heart is also thus inclined to do good works. For before this, when it is without the Holy Spirit, it is too weak. In addition, it is under the control of the devil, who drives the poor human nature to many sins, as we see in the philosophers, who undertook to live honorable, blameless lives, and yet they did not accomplish it, but fell into many great and manifest sins. So it goes with man, if, lacking true faith, he is without the Holy Spirit, and is governed only by his own human powers.

For this reason, the teaching about faith is not to be reproved as forbidding good works, but should rather be praised for teaching that good works are to be done, and for offering help by showing how a person may accomplish good works. For apart from faith and outside of Christ, human nature and abilities are far too weak to do good works, to call upon God, to endure suffering with patience, to love the neighbor, to carry out one’s assigned duties with diligence, to be obedient, to avoid evil desires. Such lofty and genuine works cannot be done without the help of Christ, as He Himself says in John 15: “Apart from Me you can do nothing.”

And so it’s fitting that Article XX ends with the words you heard today in the special Gospel appointed for this festival: I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit. Apart from Me you can do nothing.

That gets at the heart of the Lutheran Reformation and of the controversy with Rome and, really, with the Reformed and Anabaptists, too. It all boils down to abiding in Christ.

With Rome, the main question was, Where do faith and good works fit in, in relation to Christ? How do we poor sinners get Christ for a Savior? How do we obtain a gracious Father in heaven? Is it like Rome was saying, that faith and good works work together, so that gradually, eventually, hopefully at the end of a person’s life he will have done enough to deserve to have fellowship with Christ Jesus and to hear that blessed verdict of “righteous”—justified?

Or is it like the Lutherans were saying, that Christ gave Himself freely for all people on the cross and now gives Himself freely to all in the Gospel, that all might trust in Him and in that way have Him for a Savior, who even now is our Mediator before the Father, who even now stands between that believers and the accusations of the devil? As Jesus taught His disciples in the Gospel, good works come as a blessed result, as a product, as a “fruit” of a person already being joined to Jesus by faith. If a person is in Christ by faith, like a branch that’s in a vine, then he already has Christ and everything that Christ has, including righteousness before God. If a person has Christ by faith, then he is justified here and now, by that faith alone—by His very attachment to Christ, not by the good works that follow.

But, as the Lutherans have always said, as Jesus said in the Gospel, good works must necessarily follow faith and justification. Honoring God and His commandments, loving your neighbor—those aren’t optional things for the Christian. They’re necessary. But not to earn grace. Not to merit the forgiveness of sins. They’re necessary because God wants them done, and God is praised when they are done. And if we have faith in Christ, then that matters to us. If we have faith in Christ, then we have the power of His Holy Spirit to do the works that please God, as dear children obey their dear Father.

And where does faith come from and how is the Holy Spirit given? Those were the key questions that were in dispute between the Lutherans and the Anabaptists in 1530, and later, with the Reformed, and they remain a major point of contention still today. How does one come to be “in Christ,” and how is a person able to abide in Him?

The Anabaptists and Reformed said that God works directly on the human heart, that God doesn’t need any ministers or means of grace, that a minister’s forgiveness is not God’s forgiveness, that Baptism gives nothing, that the Lord’s Supper gives nothing but a bit of bread and wine.

But the Lutherans confessed that, according to Holy Scripture, God has chosen to work through the means of grace, through the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments, to convert sinners to faith in Christ, to give grace, to forgive sins, and to feed the branches with the very body and blood of the true Vine.

As I hope you can see from what you confessed today from the Augsburg Confession, everything that was confessed at Augsburg was for the purpose of being faithful to the Holy Scriptures, so that sinners can have confidence before God. So that sinners can have comfort. And ultimately, so that sinners can have Christ and abide in Christ and so have all the eternal benefits that He earned for us. May we, too, abide in Christ Jesus, our Lord, by faith! And may the words we have confessed today continue to be our confession, before God and the world! For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the Scripture says…, “whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. Amen.

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You’re going to die. And then…

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Sermon for Trinity 1

1 John 4:16-21  +  Luke 16:19-31

Our Gospel gives us a few things we could talk about today. We could take about riches and poverty in general, the good and the bad of both. We could talk about the companionship of dogs, like the ones that licked Lazarus’ sores. We could talk about angels. We could talk about fatherhood on Father’s day, taking our cue from Father Abraham, who comforted his son Lazarus but who had no comfort at all for his other “son.”

But there is a main emphasis in this Gospel and we need to focus on it for now. The point? No matter what your earthly life was like, good or bad, pleasant, painful, easy, hard, or a great big rollercoaster running through it all, you’re going to die. Everyone dies. And then everyone goes either to heaven to be comforted or to hell to be tormented. And what you received in this life is not necessarily an indicator of what you will receive in the next.

Look at the two men in our Gospel, the rich man and poor Lazarus. They had some things in common. They lived side by side in the same city. Both of them, by birth, had Abraham for a father. Both were Israelites, which meant they were not just fellow countrymen, but also fellow church members in the Church of Israel, which, at that time, was the Church of the true God. And, of course, they had death in common. Neither poverty nor riches nor anything else could prevent them from receiving the “wages of sin.” Their death proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that both were sinners.

They had other things not in common. They had two very different lots in life, and Jesus doesn’t indicate whether either of them was responsible for what he had, either the rich man for his riches or the poor man for his poverty. Sometimes our actions can produce one or the other. But it is also true that God does not provide equal opportunities for everyone. The rich are not necessarily rich because they worked so hard, and the poor are not necessarily poor because they made so many mistakes in life. (We could talk more about that, but we have more pressing things to discuss.) As a result of their different situations, the two men had other things not in common. One was hungry, the other full. One was sickly, the other healthy. One longed and begged his way through this life, while the other enjoyed his life and all that he had.

And, of course, their souls were taken to two very different destinations after they died. One was taken to heaven, to Paradise, where he was forevermore to be comforted at Abraham’s side. The other went to hell, where he was in perpetual torment.

That reveals to us another difference between the two that may have been harder or even impossible to see in this life. One trusted in the Lord God during his earthly life; the other didn’t. Lazarus was not eternally saved by his poverty, nor was the rich man condemned for his luxury. Lazarus could have cursed God for his lot in life. He could have despaired of God’s help and grace and ended up in hell. And the rich man could have remained rich while still mourning over his sinfulness and putting his trust, not in his riches, but in God and His promise of a Messiah, in which case, he would have ended up in heaven. But their final state shows us what their earthly state was truly like: Lazarus a penitent believer, the rich man an impenitent unbeliever.

Now, in the afterlife, the roles are reversed. The rich man is now the one who is longing for what Lazarus has. He has now become the beggar. Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame.

But Abraham explains that it’s too late. Once a person reaches heaven or hell, there’s nothing more to be done. Those in hell can never enter heaven or receive any good thing from heaven, and those in heaven cannot help the souls in hell. After this life is over is not the time to repent and change one’s ways. After this life, it is what it is. No, this life is the time appointed for repentance. This life is the time appointed for compassion, for deeds of love and service to one’s neighbor.

The rich man in hell learns that hard lesson, too late for himself. He hopes there’s still time for his five brothers, who were still alive. So he pleads again, I beg you therefore, father, that you would send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, that he may testify to them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ He thinks, maybe a dead man coming back to life can jar his brothers out of their apathy and impenitence and convince them that it’s what’s coming after this life that they need to think about. In modern terms, he’s looking for Lazarus to cry out to them, “Get off your iPad, your phone, your screen! Look up from your work, from your pleasure, from your family time, from your vacation, from your pain! There are more important things! You’ll be sorry if you keep living as you are! Repent now! Become different people now!”

Ah, but no. Abraham said to him, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ For this life, Moses and the Prophets are assigned, the Holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. These are they that testify of Me, Jesus said. God the Holy Spirit has chosen to work only through the Word to convict, to call to repentance, to bring to repentance, to grant faith, and to engender works of love.

The point? Again, everyone dies. And then everyone goes either to heaven to be comforted forever or to hell to be tormented forever. Heaven has to be the goal. This life is the time appointed for repentance to life, to confess our sins, to look to Christ, to receive forgiveness. This life is also the time appointed for compassion, for deeds of love. After this life, it will be too late. And after this life, everyone will see that both the temporary suffering and the temporary pleasures of this life do not compare with what awaits, with either the rest or the torment.

And therefore, since this life must be lived with the goal #1 of reaching eternal life in heaven, and the only way to know Jesus as the Savior is by hearing God’s voice in the Holy Scriptures, the Scriptures have to be priority #1, because they are the tool necessary to accomplish goal #1.

That’s why the first step in becoming a Christian is hearing the Word of God and receiving the Sacrament of Holy baptism, and the first part of living as a Christian is the regular hearing of God’s Word and the reception of His Sacrament. Because the world invades your existence every day. It’s always there, with its pleasures or with its pains, always pulling at you, tugging at you, to live for yourself, or, to wallow in your sorrow. But the Word of God calls out to you, Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God?

And for those who make the excuse that they read Scripture once in a while on their own and so don’t need to gather for worship, what does Abraham say? They have Moses and the prophets; let them read them. No, let them hear them.

Hearing is where it begins, but not where it ends, of course. Hearing leads to believing: believing that you are a poor, miserable sinner; believing that God gave His Son to die for your sins and to be raised to life for your justification; believing that God forgives you your sins for the sake of Christ alone, that He has made you His child through holy Baptism, that He will continue to preserve you in faith through Word and Sacrament, and that He will hear your prayers and help you through this life into the next.

What if you’re more like Lazarus in this life—poor, suffering, in pain? That hearing of God’s Word will sustain you through it all and hold that better life before your eyes. What if you’re more like the rich man? That hearing will keep you mindful of your sinful condition, even if you are given to enjoy some nice things in this life, so that you don’t depend on them or get too attached to them. Hearing will keep your focus on Christ, who then points you to your neighbor, and especially your brother—your fellow church member and fellow Christian. What can I do for him or for her today?

Because believing always leads to love. Believing in Christ means a new life of obedience here in this world, a life of love. If it doesn’t, if love is not present, then faith is not present, either. As John said in the Epistle, we love God because He first loved us. And this commandment we have from Him: that he who loves God must love his brother also.

So hear God’s Word calling out to you today! Look up from your life, whatever kind of life it is, and remember that you’re going to die. But Jesus died so that your death may lead to heaven and not to hell. See your sin as your greatest problem, and Christ Jesus as the only cure! Know that heaven is guaranteed to you who believe in Him, for His sake alone and by faith alone, no matter what things look like here below. And, as you have opportunity, lift up your eyes to see the ones who have been laid at your gate, to love them and to do what you can to help them. That’s, very simply, the purpose of this life, not to become absorbed with yourself and your life in this world, but to know Christ, and to love like Christ, so that after you die, you may be carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. Amen.

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Knowing and confessing the Trinity in Unity

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Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Romans 11:33-36  +  John 3:1-15

On this festival of the Most Holy Trinity, we confess what every true Christian confesses: that the God who reveals Himself in the Holy Bible is the only true God and the only true Savior. He is the God of both the Old and the New Testaments, the one God who reveals Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One God who is three Persons—three distinct Persons, not one Person. One God, not three separate Gods. And, as the Athanasian and the Nicene Creed emphasize, one of those Persons also became Man for us and for salvation. He was already God, and still is God, but He took on a human nature in order to suffer and die in the place of sinful human beings, so that now we have a blood relative in one of the Three Persons of God, so that His Father has become our Father, not just because He created us, but because He has also adopted us through faith in the Son, in the Holy Spirit’s ceremony of adoption called Holy Baptism.

It’s not about understanding God or comprehending God. It’s about knowing God as He has revealed Himself in the Person of His Son. Jesus said, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom You have sent.” To know this God is to have eternal life. To not know Him is to remain in the darkness of sin and death.

So we do well to keep it simple. Trinitarian Theology isn’t hard, as long as we don’t try to cram the Trinity into our human reason. It’s simply knowing who God is, what He has done to save us, and how we receive that salvation from Him, all of which is treated in our Gospel from John chapter 3.

Nicodemus—a Pharisee, a ruler in Israel—came to Jesus at night. He was intrigued by Jesus, but still didn’t believe in Jesus as the Christ. He was still stuck in his Pharisee’s mentality: salvation by obeying the Law, salvation by good works, salvation by birthright. He rightly saw the signs and miracles Jesus did as a testimony from God that Jesus had come from God. But he still didn’t believe in Jesus as the Son of God, and so he still didn’t know God the Father, either.

Jesus told him the truth: Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God. He explained it further: Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.

The Pharisees were so proud of their birth, so proud of their heritage as Abraham’s children. They were so proud of the decent, religious, law-abiding citizens they had worked so hard to become. And Jesus tells Nicodemus, it’s all worthless. It’s all for nothing. You’ll never be good enough to see the kingdom of God, to escape death, to enter heaven. Unless you are given a new birth and become a new person, you will perish.

You see, it’s important to know who God is, but it’s really just as important to know who man is, to know who you are. Everyone, every person on earth has the same problem, the same incurable, natural, hereditary disease. One name for it is Original Sin. It has corrupted our flesh—and the soul within—beyond remedy. It’s the root cause of all unbelief and every false religion in the world. It’s at the heart of every homicide, every angry outburst, every lazy attitude, every feeling of jealousy, every act of self-service, every thought that the rest of the world really exists to serve “me.” You can’t fight it, you can’t correct it, you can’t beat it, you can’t get rid of it.

Your only hope, Jesus says, for seeing, for entering the kingdom of God, is a new birth.

How does that new birth take place? God’s Spirit has to do it—the Spirit of the Father, who, through the word of God, drives sinners to see how hopeless their condition is, how lost they are, how needy of salvation. He drives them to fear, to contrition—to mourn over their sins and over their ruin.

And then the same Spirit holds up before their eyes the image of a serpent on a pole. You remember that account, hopefully, from the book of Numbers. The Israelites were wandering through the wilderness, complaining again about God’s providence. So He sent venomous snakes into their camp. Many of them were bitten. So they were driven to fear, driven to contrition, to mourn over their sins and their ruin. And then God provided the miraculous cure: Moses was to take bronze, melt it and shape it into the form of a serpent, then put it up on a pole, so that all who were bitten could look up at it and be saved.

As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. And so God the Holy Spirit, through the preaching of Christ, drives fearful, guilty sinners to look up and see God on the cross—God, the Son of God, given by God the Father as the sacrifice that atones for the world’s sins. By looking up at Him in faith, you are born again. You are recreated. You are forgiven. You have eternal life.

And to that rebirth and remission of sins, Jesus ties the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. Through Word and water, water and the Spirit, you have a tangible seal of the promised rebirth and eternal life, something visible to put your faith in, because Baptism has God’s promise of forgiveness and salvation attached to it.

It’s no wonder, then, that, when Jesus instituted Holy Baptism after His resurrection, He tied it directly to the Holy Trinity: Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Because it’s this Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who brings about the salvation of sinners.

To confess the Holy Trinity as the only saving God and to confess faith in Him as the only way to be justified and saved from eternal condemnation comes with its own set of dangers, too. This week, we saw yet another example of the world’s hatred for this Christian confession when Bernie Sanders attacked a White House nominee because the nominee had once written that Muslims stand under God’s condemnation. “Do you believe people in the Muslim religion stand condemned?…What about Jews?” he asked. “Do they stand condemned too?… In your judgment, do you think that people who are not Christians are going to be condemned?” The nominee in question never directly answered the question, at least, not in his public testimony.

But you answered it today in the Athanasian Creed, and we must all continue to answer it, gladly and boldly, for ourselves and for the benefit of the world, both because it’s the truth, and because it’s only by hearing the truth that the sinners of this world can be brought to repentance and faith in Christ Jesus: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith. Which faith except everyone do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.” That catholic faith, very simply, is that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, and, specifically, that Jesus Christ is true God and true Man, who suffered, died, and rose again from the dead, that all who believe in Him, and only those who believe in Him, will be eternally saved. May that confession be always found in our hearts and on our lips! Amen.

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God is still with us

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Sermon for the Feast of Pentecost

Acts 2:1-13  +  John 14:23-31

Today we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, 50 days after Easter Sunday. Let’s review the timeline for a moment. On the night before He died, in that upper room on Maundy Thursday, Jesus began to teach His disciples in earnest about what was coming next. He had already told them that He would suffer, that He would die, that He would rise from the dead on the third day. They didn’t understand what He was talking about. He told them that He was going to the Father, that He, Emmanuel, God with us, would no longer be with us in the same way as before. They didn’t understand what He was talking about. And then He promised them that, after His suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension, He would send them a gift: The Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son.

And it all happened, just as Jesus said, although His disciples didn’t understand any of it until after it happened. Jesus died on the cross; rose from the dead on Easter Sunday; appeared to His disciples on Easter and several other times over the next 40 days; then He ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Ten days later, Pentecost.

Jesus kept His promise to send His Spirit from heaven, and you heard in the Epistle how that took place. The Spirit descended on Jesus’ disciples, but you can’t see the Spirit. His name means “breath” or “wind.” How would they know He had been sent? Back at Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove and lighted on Jesus alone. But now He is to be given to all the disciples. How would they know He had come?

Would they “feel” His presence in their hearts? Not a word about any such thing. Instead, they were given three signs. (1) The sound of the loud, rushing wind—a sign that the powerful Spirit of God was among them. (2) The tongues of fire on the heads of the disciples—a sign that the Spirit now dwells with believers, and a sign that He would use their tongues, their preaching, to kindle a fire on the earth, to spread the kingdom of Christ in the hearts of men. And (3) the sudden ability of the believers to speak the wonders of God in different languages—a sign that the Gospel was to be preached to all the peoples of the earth.

And what did the disciples do with this newly-arrived Spirit? They preached the Gospel of Jesus and they baptized those who believed it—3,000 people that day. Sins were forgiven. A new life was begun. And the Church continued to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus, being sanctified and renewed day by day. It says that the Christians continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. The Church continued to preach and to hear, to baptize, and to use the Sacrament of the Altar, and more and more people around the world heard the Gospel, repented and believed, and so the cycle has gone on and on for nearly 2,000 years. All of it was, all of it still is the Holy Spirit’s doing.

And again, all of it was exactly what Jesus promised in the Gospel.

If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father’s who sent Me.

If anyone loves Me… Where does such love come from? This love for Jesus, this devotion to Jesus is essentially the same thing as faith in Jesus, and you know where that comes from. “Faith comes from hearing.” Jesus’ disciples had heard the word about Jesus, and then they heard the word from Jesus Himself, that He was both God and Man, how He had been sent by God to save poor sinners from sin, death and the devil, reconciling them with God. His disciples had believed that from the beginning. They clung to Him in faith, even when they didn’t understand everything He told them. But when they saw the full extent of His love as He allowed Himself to be crucified for their sins, when they saw Him risen from the dead, when they heard His announcement of “Peace be with you” on Easter Sunday, then they had the greatest reason to trust in Him, to love Him, and they did. It was the Holy Spirit all along, pointing them to Jesus, drawing them to Jesus, working faith and love in their hearts.

If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word. To keep the word of Jesus is to treasure it, to hold onto it, to believe it and to do it. It’s the natural product of faith. The one who loves Jesus will keep His word, will treasure it, will put it into practice. The one who doesn’t love Jesus won’t treasure His word, either.

There is another blessed result of loving and trusting in Jesus: and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. See what Jesus offers here? No matter what sins you have committed, no matter how wretched you have been, when you flee to Him in faith, when you love Him as the One who made atonement for your sins out of His great mercy and love for you, then you have the love of God the Father—only because of Christ, and because you now have Christ by faith.

And in His love, the Father does not remain distant. He’s not like some long-lost relative who loves you but never interacts with you. We will come to him and make Our home with him. Do you realize, that’s what Pentecost is? In pouring out His Spirit on His Church, Christ is here, too, and so is His Father—the Holy Trinity, dwelling in the hearts of believers, dwelling in the midst of His Church on earth, not far away, but very near. As St. Paul reminded the Corinthians, do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you?

And what is He doing here in our hearts? After bringing us to faith, the Holy Spirit now renews believers in the image of Christ on a daily basis, urging us to live in daily contrition and repentance, nudging us along to keep the word of Christ, to walk according to God’s commandments, to love God and to love our neighbor. All the while He holds up Christ crucified before our eyes, directing us to Him, to trust in Him, to love Him, to follow Him, and finally to face death itself still clinging to Him in faith. And therein lies the peace which Jesus bequeathed to His disciples in the Gospel: Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.

What else is the Spirit doing? As He dwells in believers, as He dwells in the midst of the Christian Church, as He urges Christians to speak about Christ in our many vocations, He is also reaching out to those who aren’t yet Christians, holding Christ before their eyes, showing them the love of Christ crucified, in order to convert them and kindle faith in their hearts, too. And when He does, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit come to them and make Their home with them, just as They have done with us. And so the pattern repeats, on and on, until the end of the age.

This is the benefit of Pentecost. This is what we celebrate today. The Holy Spirit has been given to us as a lasting gift, to keep us in the faith, firmly rooted in Christ Jesus, to renew us daily in love, and to work through our preaching to bring the love and the salvation of Christ to the rest of the world. Rejoice in Him and give thanks for Him, because, even though Jesus—Emmanuel, God with us—has ascended into heaven, God has now made His home with us by His Spirit. Amen.

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Confessing the apostles’ testimony

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Sermon for Exaudi – Sunday after the Ascension

1 Peter 4:7-11  +  John 15:26-16:4

As we learned on Thursday at our Ascension service, Jesus ascended into heaven, not to be separated from His Church on earth, but to work more closely with His Church, to be present in every place where His Gospel is preached and His Sacraments are administered. Christ ascended to the right hand of God and reigns as King, building His kingdom, not with His own hands or with His own mouth, but through the testimony of His witnesses. As He told His eleven apostles on His Ascension Day, But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

He told them basically the same thing already on the night before He died—the words you heard in today’s Gospel from John 15 and 16: The Spirit will testify. You will testify. And you will suffer for it dearly and pay for it with your lives. It’s not a terribly uplifting prophecy, is it? And yet, here we are, some 2,000 years later, still confessing the apostles’ testimony, professing members of the one holy Christian and Apostolic Church. How could they testify, knowing how it would go for them? How can we confess their testimony after we’ve seen just how dangerous it is?

Let’s see what our Gospel has to say about it.

Jesus tells His disciples, But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me.

He is the “Helper,” the Comforter, the “Spirit of truth” who proceeds from the Father. He would help them and guide them into all truth, teach them the truth, and help them to teach it to others.

He will “testify of Me,” Jesus says, and that gets to the heart of the Holy Spirit’s work. He wasn’t sent to fill the apostles with good feelings or with some nebulous “spirit-witness.” He was sent to “testify,” to bear witness to what He has seen—that’s what a witness does—to what He has seen with the Father, whom no human being has ever seen or can see. That’s why we need a witness. He was sent to testify of Jesus: to bear witness to His divinity, to His humanity, to the fact that all of history—past, present, and future—revolves around Him as the Savior sent from the Father to save poor sinners from sin, death, and hell. To testify that the Father truly is pleased with Jesus’ sacrifice and eager to forgive everyone who believes in Him. To testify that Jesus does indeed reign at the right hand of God. That is the testimony of the Holy Spirit.

And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning.

Now, pay attention to this. Don’t fall into the common trap of reading every Bible passage and imagining that Jesus is speaking directly to you. Jesus says, “you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning.” That’s not you or I. We were not with Jesus from the beginning—the beginning of His preaching ministry. It only applies to the eleven apostles. They were the ones who were to go out and bear witness—to testify to what they had seen with their own eyes and heard with their own ears. Their testimony trumps all other testimony, because they were with Jesus from the beginning. They heard it all, saw it all, witnessed it all firsthand, including His suffering, death, and, mostly importantly, His resurrection.

The apostles did, indeed, testify by preaching throughout the world. But their testimony would be useless to us if they hadn’t written it down. Because, you know what they call it in a court of law if you heard someone say something about what someone else said? They call it ‘hearsay.’ It doesn’t count.

But the apostles did, in fact, write down, under the Spirit’s inspiration, the things that you and I were to know. That testimony does count. It does hold weight. It’s why the New Testament Church so thoroughly investigated whether or not a book was written by an apostle or under the direct supervision of an apostle, because they were the ones whom Jesus chose and sent out to be His witnesses and who had the promise of the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit, just as the prophets of the Old Testament had.

The reliability of the inspired Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, is something that we may take for granted here, but we shouldn’t. It’s rare and becoming rarer to believe it. From Genesis to Revelation, we have the only firsthand witness that God has left for us, the testimony that trumps all other testimony, the truth that must be believed, or else we make God out to be a liar, because the Holy Spirit was the one who inspired this witness.

That’s the pleasant side of the apostles’ testimony, the fact that they did go out and testify and wrote down for all future generations the truth about Jesus. Then there’s the unpleasant side of Jesus’ prophecy:

These things I have spoken to you, that you should not be made to stumble. They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me. But these things I have told you, that when the time comes, you may remember that I told you of them.

It would not go well for the apostles on earth. They would be excommunicated by the Jews and killed and suffer everything in between. Not because the apostles were too mean or foolish in the way they presented the Gospel, but for one reason alone: They have not known the Father nor Me.

The apostles were warned ahead of time. This is what it would mean to be Jesus’ witnesses. And they did it anyway. That itself is a testimony and the reason why we call them “martyrs.” Their preaching and their willingness to face excommunication and torture and death are testimonies to the truth of the Gospel, to the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and to the sure hope of this not being all there is, the hope of an inheritance in heaven that far surpasses any earthly gain they could hope to see.

Now, here we are nearly 2,000 years later. We are not witnesses like the apostles were, but we still have the testimony of the Holy Spirit and of the apostles. Next week we’ll celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. He was poured out and now remains with us until Christ comes again, inextricably connected to the Word He inspired in those apostles, linked to the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Here the Spirit abides and testifies: Yes, you were made God’s child through Holy Baptism, yes He loves you, yes He’ll make all things work together for your good. Yes, the Holy Scriptures are reliable. That’s the Spirit’s testimony.

But since we weren’t there with Jesus in person, we are not properly called “witnesses,” and we do not, properly speaking, offer “testimony” to the world. In all the New Testament, Christians are not called upon to “testify” about Jesus. What we are called to do is to “confess.” We confess who Jesus is and what He has said. We confess the apostles’ testimony

If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.”

Even so, there will be consequences for confessing the apostles’ testimony. We know that. The apostles were martyred, put to death for their testimony about Jesus. Many since then have been targeted and killed, not even for preaching the Gospel, but simply for their confession as baptized Christians. Just this week another 22 Christians were slaughtered by ISIS in Egypt, just for being known as Christians.

The persecution will continue, and grow worse. Jesus has told us ahead of time. But it’ll be OK. That’s what Jesus wanted His apostles to believe, and what He wants us to believe, too. It’ll be OK. Jesus was OK after He suffered, and you will be, too. The persecution of Christians will result in praise for the Holy Trinity and in a life that is far better than this one for all who remain faithful until death. As the Psalmist wrote, The LORD is my light and my salvation; Whom shall I fear? The LORD is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? The Lord Christ reigns at the right hand of God. We will confess the apostles’ testimony, whether that means loss of income, loss of friends, loss of job, loss of home, loss of freedom or loss of life. Because we have the promise of the Lord Jesus that all we lose here will be replaced by incomparably more when we join Him at God’s right hand.

Until then, we have His Spirit and all the help we will ever need. That’s what we’ll celebrate next Sunday at Pentecost, the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise—His promise to send the Helper, the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. The apostles couldn’t have accomplished anything without His help and wouldn’t have dared. But with His divine help, they could and did. And so will we, by the grace of God. Amen.

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