28 May 2015

Same-Sex Behaviors & Desires: God Speaks to Both

This article also appears in my congregation's newsletter, The Hope Lutheran (June-July 2015) and is cross-posted at Brothers of John the Steadfast (www.steadfastlutherans.org).

Matters of same-sex behaviors and desires have become commonplace in our sexually super-charged and pleasure-obsessed culture. Pop-culture doles out regular helpings of such behaviors and desires in both dramatic and comedic settings, and the U.S.  Supreme Court will soon issue a landmark ruling on what is being called “the right” to same-sex “marriage.”

From God’s Word, we Christians know that these behaviors and desires go against God’s good design and will for us and for all human beings. However, even as we look to God’s Word for help and guidance, some pose this question: When the Bible calls homosexuality (same-sex behavior and desires) sinful, does that apply to both the behaviors and the desires, or just to the behaviors?

We do well to look to the Scriptures—what God says—in order to discuss these matters and provide a faithful witness to the forgiving love of God in Christ Jesus. Yes, God speaks to both same-sex behaviors and same-sex desires.

What is “sin”?

Before we can know what God says about the “sin” of same-sex behaviors and desires, we need to know what He says about “sin” in general.

Augsburg Confession, Article II faithfully and succinctly explains Scripture’s teaching on “Original Sin”:

Our churches teach that since the fall of Adam, all who are naturally born are born with sin, that is, without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with the inclination to sin, called concupiscence. Concupiscence is a disease and original vice that is truly sin. It damns and brings eternal death on those who are not born anew through Baptism and the Holy Spirit (Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, Second Edition, 2006, p. 31-32).

All human beings are born with “sin,” that is, without true fear and trust in God and with the inclination to believe, desire, and behave in ways that go against God’s good will.

What is “concupiscence,” you ask? Coming from Latin, com- + cupere, it means “to ardently desire.” The Apology of the Augsburg Confession refers to Augustine’s use of the term to define original sin as “wicked desire” (Ap. II, 24; Concordia, p. 78). The Apology then explains:

“Since diseased nature cannot fear and love God and believe God, it seeks and loves carnal things…. Concupiscence is not only a corruption of physical qualities, but also, in the higher powers, a vicious turning to fleshly things” (Ap. II, 24-25, Concordia, p. 78-79).

To call someone or something “sinful” is simply to acknowledge two things: 1) the absence of fearing, loving, and trusting in the God who made us and loves us, and 2) the presence of a disease that ardently desires to fill the void (“God-shaped hole”?) by pursuing and loving carnal things.

Same-sex behavior is, clearly, sinful.

Now let’s apply this Biblical understanding of “sin” to matters of same-sex behavior.

God’s original, pre-sin design gave us “man” (human beings) created “in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). From the beginning, God’s purpose for the male and the female in this relationship is for them to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). God’s good will and design gives us male and female in order 1) to reflect and show forth His image and 2) to procreate.

God further clarifies His design for male and female in Genesis 2. The first man, Adam, is the only human being, but “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). So God creates the woman (Genesis 2:21-22) and institutes the estate of marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:24).

After the fall into sin (Genesis 3), anything—any desire, any behavior—that strays from God’s original design is labeled “sin” and “sinful.” In matters of physical sexuality and intimacy, this includes, but is not limited to, same-sex behaviors. Even natural law and common-sense reason can determine that same-sex unions cannot procreate.

According to what God says in His Word, same-sex behaviors clearly go against His good will for all human beings. Relevant Old Testament passages include:

  • Genesis 19, where men of Sodom surrounded Lot’s house and demanded that his male visitors be brought out “that [they] may know them” (19:5; see Genesis 4:1 for “know” referring to the sex act). Lot even urged these concupiscent men not to act “so wickedly” (19:7), and Sodom was ultimately destroyed by God Himself;
  • Leviticus 18:22, which says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination”;
  • Leviticus 20:13, which says, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

The New Testament is no less bold in calling such behavior “sinful,” that is, against God’s good will.

  • Romans 1:18-27 – St. Paul identifies various sins that show how all human beings are fallen in “original sin” (concupiscence). Among these sins, he says, “women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another” (1:26-27).
  • 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 – St. Paul lists “men who practice homosexuality” among other sinners with their sinful behaviors who “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (6:9). (The original Greek actually specifies both the receiver and the giver of the male-on-male sex act!)
  • 1 Timothy 1:8-10 – St. Paul proclaims that God’s law is good, if used lawfully, in order to expose sinful behavior (1:8). Among other sinners, he again mentions “men who practice homosexuality” (1:10).

From these well-known passages, same-sex behavior is clearly “sinful,” that is, it strays from trusting and loving God and His design for male and female. It also strays from His good design for sexual relations as the activity in which a husband and a wife express their union and mutual companionship, find delight in one another, and carry out God’s purpose of the procreation of children (see Lutheran Service Book, p. 275).

But what about same-sex desires?

While it can be helpful to distinguish between same-sex behaviors and same-sex desires, such a distinction does not make the desires any “less sinful.” Nor does it mean that same-sex desires are any “more sinful” (more serious, more damning, etc.) than other sinful desires.

If we look for a handy-dandy Scriptural proof-text that says, “Same-sex desire is sinful” (or “an abomination” or…), we will come up empty-handed. However, from what God does say in His Word, we can discern that same-sex desires do fall into the category of “sinful,” as do other desires, such as desires of adultery, greed, revenge, etc.

Not only can, and should, every human being confess, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5), but also every individual must admit that “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:10-11). Every human being—along with all of his or her desires—is infected with concupiscence, that “vicious turning to fleshly things” to find meaning and fulfillment in life.

The New Testament is replete with references to the sinful desires—a.k.a. “passions”—that war against our life with God. Here is a small sampling:

  • Romans 1:26 – “God gave them up to dishonorable passions” (in the context of women and men exchanging natural relations for same-sex relations).
  • Romans 6:12 – “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.”
  • Galatians 5:24 – “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
  • Ephesians 2:3 – “…among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind….”
  • 2 Timothy 2:22 – “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”
  • Titus 2:12 – “…training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age….”
  • 1 Peter 1:14 – “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance….”
  • 1 Peter 2:11 – “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”

Having certain “passions” (desires) does not mean that they are innocent or innocuous.

Our Lord Jesus illustrates this when He refers to adulterous desires and thoughts: “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).

The most incisive comment from Jesus comes when He identifies with precision the true source of our sinful behaviors. They actually come from within, from our sinful desires: “What comes out of mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (Matthew 15:18-20).

Does God have anything else to say?

Having said all of that, what else does God say? Same-sex desires and behaviors are indeed sinful, as are many other desires and behaviors (such as alcoholism, cheating, theft, adultery, slander, gossip, etc.). However, God has a better, more life-giving, more comforting word to speak to all of us: He forgives us and restores us through His Son Jesus Christ.

Pastor Tom Eckstein expresses it well as he addresses those who wrestle with same-sex desires and behaviors:

If you are a person who bears the burden of homosexuality, you need to understand that when God uses Holy Scripture to show that your homosexual desire and behavior is sin, He does this because He LOVES you! God exposes your sin so that you can trust in Jesus, your Lord and Savior, through whom you are completely forgiven and holy in God’s sight—even as you continue to struggle with homosexual desires and behavior! In fact, once we are set free by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are then able to see God’s sexual laws as gifts from a loving Father (Bearing Their Burden: Speaking the Truth in Love to People Burdened by Homosexuality, p. 39, emphasis original).

The Gospel of Jesus Christ applies to all sinners, whatever their sinful desires and behaviors. By His resurrection, we get to live a new life. In our Baptism, we are called daily to drown the Old Adam “with all sins and evil desires” and daily to “arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (Small Catechism, Holy Baptism).

Listen to my "Family Shield" interview with Dr. Beverly Yahnke on giving Gospel healing to those who struggle with same-sex attraction.

25 May 2015

Homily for the Day of Pentecost

"The Pentecost Harvest"
Acts 2:1-21 & John 14:23-31

Listen here.

If you want to know who the Holy Spirit is and what He does, don’t listen to the Pentecostals or the Charismatics. They get it all wrong. They insist that the Holy Spirit is somehow in business for Himself, making a name for Himself, doing His own thing, making us ooh and aah over unusual things like hearing unknown, babbling languages. Instead, if you truly want to know who the Holy Spirit is and what He does, listen to Jesus. He says, “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” No “Lone-Ranger” Holy Spirit there! With Father and Son, He is God, and He works in concert with the Father and the Son. And His number one work is to point you to Jesus.

Jesus also says, “When the Helper comes, who I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about Me” (Jn. 15:26). The Holy Spirit is God, comes from God, and testifies about our Lord Jesus and His salvation. Jesus also says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take what is Mine and declare it to you” (Jn. 16:13-14). Nope, no “Lone-Ranger,” independent contractor work for the Holy Spirit! Instead, He comes to guide you into the Truth—and Truth has a name; His name is Jesus. The Spirit takes the things of Jesus—His forgiveness, His life, and His salvation—and He declares them to you.

If you want to know what this Day of Pentecost is all about, again, don’t listen to the Pentecostals or the Charismatics. They focus on the out-of-the-ordinary “mighty rushing wind” and the “divided tongues as of fire”—as if we should expect those same spectacular things actually to benefit us in our normal, non-spectacular lives today. They miss the point! If you truly want to know what this Day of Pentecost is all about, listen to God in His Word.

This “Day of Pentecost” is also called “The Feast of Pentecost.” It comes straight from the Old Testament, and it reminds us of a festival, or feast, God gave for a fiftieth day (The word “pentecost” means fifty.). St. Paul speaks of questions of festivals and Sabbaths and then says, “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:17). Just as the Holy Spirit does, those Old Testament feasts and festivals—including Pentecost—point us to Christ Jesus Himself.

Let’s start with the biggie of Old Testament feasts—the Feast of Passover. About 1500 years before Jesus, God was about to lead His people out of Egyptian slavery. He told Moses how to celebrate a feast for this deliverance. Take a lamb. Slit its throat. Paint the blood on the doorposts, so that the Angel of Death would pass over the homes and the people could live. Roast the lamb. Eat it, all of it, with a meal that rehearses the Lord’s mighty acts of rescuing His people from slavery. And celebrate this feast every year.

When Jesus comes to deliver us from our slavery to sin and death, He actually comes as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). He is slain when He is nailed to the cross. And that happens on Passover. His blood covers us so that we may live and not see eternal death. And, on the night when He is betrayed, when He celebrates the Passover meal with His disciples, He even gives us His Body and His Blood for us to eat and to drink and thus live in His mighty acts of rescuing us from sin, death, and the devil. And we get to celebrate this new, Christian “passover meal,” not just once a year, but every Lord’s Day and at other times. Jesus fulfills the Old Testament Passover feast for us. “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7).

Close on the heels of Passover came another ancient feast: the Feast of Firstfruits. At the same time of the year as Passover—late March or early April—during the same week as Passover, God’s people living in God’s Promised Land would see the first fruits in their wheat and barley fields. God told Moses to tell the people: “You shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest, and he shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, so that you may be accepted” (Lev. 23:10-11). Along with this ritual action of waving the sheaves that God had given, God’s people would offer sacrifices of thanksgiving—lambs and grain and wine—and would feast on the Lord’s goodness. After this Feast of Firstfruits, every household in Israel could enjoy the new harvest. It joined together their “eating of ordinary meals at home with sacred meals at the sanctuary” (Kleinig, Leviticus, 502).

Jesus fulfills the Passover Feast in His death on the cross. He also fulfills the Feast of Firstfruits in His resurrection, at the same time of year, in the same week, on the third day. For several weeks now, we’ve been celebrating what St. Paul boldly proclaimed: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). The first fruits of the wheat field give hope and promise that more fruits, more heads of grain, will soon follow. Christ Jesus is the first fruits of all of us who are bound to fall asleep into death. But High Priest Jesus waves the first fruits of His resurrection for all to see—you, me, all people, even God the Father. More resurrections are sure to come—for you, for me, for all who trust Jesus for forgiveness, life, and salvation. “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Cor. 15:21-23). “Jesus’ resurrection marked the beginning of the harvest time that will not end until the close of the age” (Kleinig, Leviticus, 509).

Now we’re ready for the Feast called Pentecost—the feast of day fifty, also called the feast of weeks. In the Old Testament—fifty days after Passover; that is, seven weeks after Passover—the people would once again bring their sheaves of wheat for the priest to wave as an offering. These sheaves now came from the full harvest. God had made the fields fruitful. God had provided for them from His land. God had caused the harvest. Now His people could enjoy God’s mighty works of providing for them.

How does our Lord Jesus fulfill the Feast of Pentecost? He keeps His promise to send the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit manifests Himself on Pentecost, Jesus’ disciples begin speaking in various normal and down-to-earth languages. And what do they speak? “The mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11)--His works of saving and forgiving us sinners through the death and resurrection of Jesus. When the Holy Spirit manifests Himself on Pentecost, God is causing a harvest—a harvest of people who hear the mighty, saving works of God in Christ Jesus in their own languages, a harvest of people who rejoice in Jesus’ death and resurrection for them, a harvest of people who live in the new life of Jesus. That harvest is YOU and all Christians. “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21). Welcome to the Pentecost harvest! “At Pentecost God the Father poured out the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Christ. He did not give them the blessings of a bountiful harvest from the land, but conveyed the firstfruits of the Spirit to them as his priests through the risen Lord Jesus” (Kleinig, Leviticus, 509).

You, and I, and all who hear and receive the Gospel of Jesus ARE the harvest. “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13). And God the Holy Spirit—along with the Father and the Son—will bring in the full harvest on the Last Day. You, and I, and all who hear and receive the Gospel of Jesus “have been redeemed from mankind” and are “firstfruits for God and the Lamb” (Rev. 14:4). That’s what Pentecost is all about, and that’s who the Holy Spirit is and what He does FOR YOU. Amen.

18 May 2015

Homily for Easter 7 - Exaudi

"The Spirit, Your Comforter"
John 15:26-16:4

Listen here.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Today we come to the end of the “week of Sundays." This is now the seventh week of celebrating the joys of Christ’s victory over the grave, over every deadly thing that separates us from our God who loves us. We’ve been enjoying the life that He gives as He restores us to life with God. But now we need comfort, just as the disciples did.

Jesus’ words in our Gospel reading actually come from the night before He would die. He told His disciples that He must leave them. He said that where He was about to go, they could not follow. Jesus leave them? What were they supposed to do? How would they carry on without Him? Since we celebrated Jesus’ Ascension on Thursday, we might be tempted to think that Jesus has left us too. Jesus’ answer is simple: “When the Helper/Comforter comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about Me.” Just as Jesus comforted His disciples with the promised Holy Spirit, He also comforts you by sending His Spirit.

How we need some comfort these days! No, not just “some comfort”—A LOT of comfort! News reports of Christians being persecuted in far off lands continue to confront us—and rightly so. After all, our brothers and sisters in Christ are teaching us to remain faithful even in the midst of suffering. In our own land, we Christians are seen more and more as the problem to be remedied and the enemy to be vanquished. The hour is coming, and is now here, when many think ostracizing and marginalizing Christians is actually offering service to God. Well, not to the true God, but it is offering service—praise and worship—to false gods such as immediate gratification and self-chosen pleasures. As Jesus warns: “they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.”

But Jesus does not tell us these things to frighten us or to lead us to constant hand-wringing. No, Jesus says “all these things to keep you from falling away.” After all, as He said, if they hated Him, they’ll hate His Christians. If they persecuted Him, they’ll also persecute His Christians. If they executed Him, they’ll also execute His Christians. And, no, I don’t mention these things to frighten you or lead you to constant hand-wringing either. No, this is all about how our Lord would comfort us. Peter said it well as he echoed our Lord’s words: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Pet. 4:12-14). It’s all about how our Lord comforts us with His Spirit—“the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father.”

When Jesus spoke to His disciples, He was preparing them for that little “in-between time”—that time when He would leave them to go the cross. But He would come back to them in the resurrection on the third day. And then He would leave them again—for “a little while”—when He would ascend to God’s right hand. And with those first twelve disciples, we’re still in that “in-between time” before our Lord comes again. The difference is, we have the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. His cross and His shed blood forgive all our doubts and apprehensions. His victory over the grave gives us confidence and hope—and comfort.

That comfort comes not in the form of a cozy, warm blanket that you put on your bed. It does not come in the form of a comfy chair in which you relax to watch TV. It does not come in the form of “comfort food,” whether chocolate or something called “Southern Comfort.” No, the comfort that Jesus gives is very mighty and very fortifying. “When the [Comforter] comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about Me.”

Our word “comfort” actually comes from two Latin words. Put together those two Latin words literally mean “strengthen together” or “fortify together.” Instead of cozy warm blankets or soothing chocolates that melt in your mouth, think body builder’s muscle. Or, better yet, think of a towering castle wall, as in “a mighty fortress.” Our Lord’s “comfort” comes through His Comforter, the Holy Spirit.

And how does the Spirit of Truth, the divine Comforter—the divine Fortifier—strengthen you together as Jesus’ disciples? He bears witness about Jesus. He teaches you all things and brings to your remembrance all that Jesus has said and done for you. He gives you the peace of sins forgiven that the world cannot give (see John 14:26-27). He also convicts you and the world of sin. He convinces you that Jesus has come from the Father, has won your salvation, and has returned to the Father. And He convinces you that the ruler of this world—the old evil foe himself—has been judged and awaits his sentence (see John 16:8-11). Now that strengthens. That fortifies. That gives comfort.

The Holy Spirit helps and comforts you by fortifying you, by nourishing you, by transforming you, and by renewing your strength. In your Baptism, you have received new life by being joined to Christ in His death and resurrection. You have been reborn, born anew into life with God. In your Baptism, your Lord says to you: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you” (Ezek. 36:25).

But you cannot live that new life without constant care or sustenance. Just as no infant can care for himself/herself, no child of God can care for himself/herself. The Holy Spirit comes to give you the love and food of Jesus Christ. And not only that, but He also protects you from things that you may not know or understand. Not only do you need protection from the obvious problems in life, but you also need it from the spiritual assaults that you cannot see coming. So the Holy Spirit feeds and nourishes you, protects and defends you as God’s holy and dearly loved children. He gives you a new heart. He puts a new spirit within you. He removes your heart of stone, and He gives you a heart of flesh—flesh that lives with God and from His Word.

The Holy Spirit feeds and protects you in ways that you cannot see but can only believe. When the Holy Spirit feeds you on Holy Communion, you cannot see that you are actually receiving Christ’s life-giving Body and Blood. But you believe it, and so you receive the nourishment and immortality that the Spirit gives there. When the Holy Spirit protects you with the word of forgiveness, you cannot see Jesus speaking that word to you. Yet you believe that the pastor’s forgiveness is Christ’s forgiveness, and thus you receive the Spirit’s defense and protection given there.

Our Lord Jesus says, “the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about Me.” Where does this testifying take place? Not in a courtroom. Not in a congressional hearing. Not in a baseball stadium or a movie theater. But right here, in the Church, right here where the Gospel and Sacraments are delivered to you. Here you have the Spirit’s comforting, strengthening, fortifying testimony. No, He does not necessarily give you a warm feeling in your heart. But He certainly does testify that you have received and still receive the life of the Lord Jesus. He does testify that Jesus’ life shapes you and renews you in the life that you have from birth. And by this testimony, the Spirit feeds and fortifies the Lord’s life in you so that you may continue to grow and mature until the day when your renewal is complete.

Just as Jesus comforted His disciples with the promised Holy Spirit, He also comforts you by sending His Spirit. So, with the Holy Spirit not only working for you, but also working in you, you can be bold and say with certain confidence: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps. 27:1). Amen.

11 May 2015

Homily for Easter 6 - Rogate

"Praying in Jesus' Name"
John 16:23-33

Listen here.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

What does it mean to pray “in Jesus’ name”? From childhood we have learned that when we add those little words to the end of a prayer, that makes it a “Christian prayer.” Perhaps you add that little phrase to all of your prayers. But how do we keep that little phrase—“in Jesus’ name”—from becoming merely a talisman or a magic formula to get what we want when we pray? When Jesus bids us to pray in His name, He invites us to draw on and depend on the boundless treasure of His rich mercy.

Today we observe Rogate—“Pray! Sunday.” For the third week in a row we’ve heard from Jesus as He tried to comfort and console His disciples. On the night when He was betrayed, He promised them that He was going back to the Father. That journey would lead Jesus to death on the cross, to rest in the tomb, and then back to life on the third day. But His work of saving us sinners did not stop there. He would ascend to God’s right hand, and, as He promised, He would send the Holy Spirit. Two weeks ago these promises led us to rejoice. Last week they led us to sing. Today, these promises from Jesus lead us to pray.

Jesus says, “Whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it you.” Then He says, “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” Here’s the first thing that Jesus means by praying in His name: Jesus invites and commands you to pray. So how’s your prayer life? Are you praying? When do you pray—when you get up in the morning, when you go to bed at night, when you eat meals? How often do you pray? Do you pray silently, orally, or both? Do you pray only when the inspiration to pray strikes you, or do you set aside regular times for prayer? Do you pray together as a family, or do you just assume everyone in the family is praying? Parents, do you teach your children how to pray by praying with them and for them? Children, do you pay attention when your parents pray and teach you to pray? Do you pray only when times get tough, or do you pray regularly, day in and day out, no matter what the circumstances of life?

You see, prayer is as natural to a Christian as breathing is to your lungs. First, your lungs inhale, then your lungs exhale. First, you receive air in, and then you breathe air out. That’s the way prayer works too. First, you receive and hear God’s Word, and then you breathe out in your prayers. First, you breathe in the sweet, fresh air of Jesus’ cross-won love and forgiveness for you, and then you breathe out in “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” to Him and out of love for people around you. So, praying in Jesus’ name means actually doing what He invites and commands you to do.

And if there is ever a time when we Christians need to pray, and pray always, now is the time. Governing leaders seem intent on squashing our religious liberties and keep trampling on our consciences informed by Christ and His Word. Tawdry messages of “eat, drink, and be merry” in media and culture hold more sway than God’s life-giving Good News. God’s institutions of marriage and family are falling on very hard times. Respect for human life keeps diminishing before our very eyes. Property and possessions of others are seen as “fair game” for those who feel discontent and decide simply to take. Reputations are routinely slashed and burned, especially in the anti-social behavior that infects social media. To borrow words from the prophet Isaiah, we live in a time when so many want to “call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Is. 5:20).

Yes, we Christians need to pray! As St. Paul urged young Pastor Timothy, he also urges us “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). Praying in Jesus’ name means actually doing what Jesus invites and commands us to do.

Here’s the second thing that praying in Jesus’ name means. Jesus says, “In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” Praying “in Jesus’ name” means much more than just adding a few little words to the end of our prayers! It’s no mere magic formula to get the goodies from God, as if He were merely a cosmic vending machine. Instead, it means that we have a new identity: we are children of the heavenly Father and our Lord Jesus Christ is our “big Brother.” “For He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers” (Heb. 2:11).

With this new identity—as Christians, as children of God—we have access to the Father. And God only hears the prayers of His children, that is, His Christians. The Mormon, the Muslim, or even the false-Christian can pray, and their prayers may even be “beautiful” in words and thoughts, but God won’t hear them. Why not? Because they are not His dear children; they do not love and trust His Son who died and rose again to save them. But to us who do love and trust Jesus the Son of God for forgiveness, life, and salvation, God gives us a precious and comforting promise: “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”

Many people view praying to God something like being a young child going to sit on Santa’s lap at the shopping mall. “What do you want for Christmas, Susie? What do you want, Johnny?” shopping mall Santa asks. And out comes the list. But there’s no relationship there. Shopping mall Santa does not know one Susie or one Johnny from another. But when there’s an identity and a relationship there—parent and child, father and son, mother and daughter—then things are different. Little Johnny or Susie can sit on Mommy or Daddy’s lap and talk and make requests…and be heard…and be answered.

In the same way, praying in Jesus’ name means that each of us has a new identity—and a relationship with God. Each of us is God’s son or daughter because of Jesus and His death and resurrection. Our Baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection gives us a new identity. We belong to Him now, because “[we] have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer [we] who live, but Christ who lives in [us]. And the life [we] now live in the flesh [we] live by faith in the Son of God, who loved [us] and gave Himself for [us]” (Gal. 2:20).

And here’s the third thing that praying “in Jesus’ name” means. Jesus said, “I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” You can pray in Jesus’ name because He has overcome the world in His dying and rising, because He gives you peace in His broken body and shed blood.

Praying in Jesus’ name is like this: Imagine a treasure chest full of precious, priceless gifts. That treasure chest is Jesus. When we pray in Jesus’ name, we may draw out of that treasure chest anything that Jesus Himself has put in it. Did He put FORGIVENESS of all our sins in that chest? Then, yes, we may draw it out and treasure it. And when we ask for forgiveness, Jesus always answers when we hear the Gospel proclaimed and receive His Sacraments given out. Did Jesus put FAITH in that chest? Yes, His perfect faith in His Father. And He now gives that perfect faith to us so that we will be strengthened in faith. Did He put a new house or a new car or an easy life in that treasure chest? Not necessarily. But He does put in that chest DAILY BREAD—everything we need to support this body and life. So, when we ask not just for what we want, but rather for what we need, our Lord Jesus graciously gives it to us.

Praying “in Jesus’ name” means so much more than just adding a few little words to the end of our prayers. It means that we actually pray as Jesus invites and commands us to pray. It means that we pray with a new identity as God’s dear children through our Baptism. And it means that we can draw out of the treasure chest called Jesus any and all of the gifts that He has put in. When we pray in Jesus’ name, it means that God hears us because of His own Son. No, our prayers are not perfect, but when God hears them through His Son Jesus, He delights in them. And because of Jesus crucified and risen, our heavenly Father will always answer our prayers “that [our] joy may be full.” Amen.

07 May 2015

Homily for Easter 5 - Cantate

"The Truth, the Spirit, and You"
John 16:5-15

Listen here.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Remember what Jesus says about the Holy Spirit: “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take what is Mine and declare it to you.” (Jn. 16:13-14)

We’re still celebrating the Easter season and our Lord’s Resurrection from the dead. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. By His own death He has conquered death. He gives life to all in the tomb, and all heading toward the tomb. Our Lord brings forgiveness for sins and life in the face of death. He has defeated our worst enemies—sin, death, and Satan. So how do you live with such good news? How do you live in such glorious comfort and hope? How do you walk through life as God’s holy people? Here’s why Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit teaches you the Truth, who is Christ, to comfort and sustain you.

I. What is Truth?
Just before he sentenced Jesus to be crucified, Pontius Pilate asked the question: “What is truth?” Little did he know that Truth—Truth Incarnate, the Son of God in the flesh—was standing right there in front of him. And we enlightened 21st century Americans are not that much different from Pilate. Our society teaches us to ask “What is truth?”—and in the same skeptical way that Pilate asked. We think that truth is in the eye of the beholder. You have your truth, and I have my truth, as they say. But this is a big lie.

Sadly, we in the Church start believing this lie. We might say it this way: “You believe what you want, and I’ll believe what I want.” Or we might say it this way: “That’s your interpretation of the Bible. My interpretation is this….” Or when the pastor gives us God’s Truth from the pulpit, and we don’t like it, we might say, “Well, that’s just his opinion.” We really should be ashamed of ourselves for believing and promoting lies like this. My, how we love to exchange God’s Truth for society’s lies!

The Truth of God is very simple. The Truth of God says, “All mankind are liars” (Ps. 116:11)--yes, that includes men and women, girls and boys. The Truth of God also says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Yes, that means all of us. The Truth of God also says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks after God” (Rom. 3:10-11). Yes, that includes you and me. The Truth of God tells us to “put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness” (Jas. 1:21), because that filthiness and wickedness comes from us…and that’s the truth!

But the Truth of God is very simple in another way too. The Truth of God is Jesus Christ Himself—Truth in the Flesh. What does Jesus, very Truth in the Flesh tell us? He tells us to be comforted. He tells us that we are “justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). The Truth of God tells us that “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). Truth also tells us this: “If while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life” (Rom. 5:10). What wonderful and glorious Truth we have in our Lord Jesus Christ! That’s what Truth is.

II. What does the Spirit do?
God cares for His Truth very much. He wants you and me to embrace His Truth. You see, people’s lives – your lives and my life – depend on God’s Truth. So God wants us to hear His Truth correctly. He knows that all of the personal, private interpretations so popular today only confuse. That’s why our Lord Jesus sends the Holy Spirit. As Jesus told His disciples, He also tells us: “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth….” The Holy Spirit’s “job” is to guide His people, His Church, into God’s Truth. He doesn’t just float around and give some kind of warm-fuzzy, spine-tingling, feel-good experiences. He doesn’t just sit around waiting to zap us with a language that no one else understands. The Spirit’s “job” is this: to direct our minds and hearts to Jesus, the Truth of God. When we focus on Jesus and trust Him, the Spirit is doing His work. And when we have life in the Risen Lord, we get to see that “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (Jas. 1:17). How did Jesus say it? “He [the Spirit] will glorify Me, for He will take what is Mine and declare it to you.”

Jesus tells us how the Spirit guides us into all Truth. He convicts and convinces “the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” First, the Spirit must show us our sin. He must convict us of our own unbelief, our own ways of thumbing our nose at God and living by our own sinful desires. Second, the Spirit convinces us that Jesus died to forgive our sins, and He lives to give us life with God. You don’t need to make God like you. He already loves you, and He sent His Son to show the great depths of His love. Third, the Spirit keeps reminding us that Satan is defeated. He may tempt us; he may trouble us; but our Lord has conquered the old evil foe. The Truth of God always shields us from Satan’s attacks.

III. What does this mean for you?
The most important thing this means for you is that the Holy Spirit is always doing His “job.” He is always leading the Church as a whole and all Christians individually into the Truth, that is, into Christ. Remember how you learn to say it from the Small Catechism: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord, or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, and sanctified me in the true faith.” When someone says, “I gave my heart to Jesus,” or “I let Jesus into my heart,” it’s not really accurate. To tell the truth: the Holy Spirit brings you to faith and enlivens you and keeps you in the faith.

The Small Catechism goes on: “In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps [her] with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.” Yes, the Spirit brings you into the Church, and she is your Mother in the Truth. Just as an earthly mother gives birth to her children, the Church gives birth to you and your brothers and sisters in Christ as she proclaims the Truth of Jesus and His mercy and salvation. Just as an earthly mother clothes and feeds her children, your spiritual Mother, the Church, clothes you in the robe of Christ’s righteousness when you are baptized. Then she feeds you on the food of Christ’s Body and Blood to sustain your soul and strengthen your faith. And just as an earthly mother corrects and comforts her children, your spiritual Mother, the Church, the Bride of Christ, corrects you by showing you your sin, and she comforts you by giving you the mercies of God in Christ.

This is why today is called “Cantate,” or “Sing! Sunday.” As we live together in the Truth—the Truth who is Jesus and the life that the Spirit gives—we can’t help but sing. As Colossians 3(:16) says: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Here’s why the Spirit gathers us together in God’s house. When you sing the liturgy and hymns, you sing not just for yourself, but also for those in the pews with you. So, sing the liturgy and those hymns with joy! Sing them with mouths wide open, with throats full of gratitude and praise! The people around you need to hear the Truth Who is Christ. When you say your “Amen” throughout the service, say it like you mean it! “Amen” is your word, your joyous participation in God’s service. Shout out your “Amens”; God loves to hear them! And your neighbor needs to hear them too.

The Spirit of Truth leads us into all Truth—into the crucified and risen Christ. Amen. This is most certainly true.