Sunday, April 27, 2008

Rogate (Easter 6)

27 April 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA
Text: John 16:23-33 (Num 21:4-9, Jas 1:22-27)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

After three years of speaking in parables, and in figurative language, our Lord Jesus speaks plainly to His disciples. They are nearing the end of their time of study with their Teacher, and are soon to be graduated into becoming teachers of the faith themselves. As our Lord nears the end of His earthly ministry, the disciples approach the beginning of theirs.

But there is one more test that will be given to the twelve students, a test that all would fail, though only one would be removed from the course of study. And even though the eleven will fail from a worldly standpoint, they will succeed by the grace of their Teacher. Though they will fail miserably, their Lord would succeed for them mercifully, on their behalf, and in their place.

As the time nears for our Lord to go to the cross, the disciples finally begin to get the picture. And with this revelation comes yet another revelation: “You will be scattered, each to his own, and will leave Me alone,” says our Lord, “And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me.” Our Lord warns His students: “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”

Jesus promises the disciples peace, while assuring them that from the world, they will receive trials and tribulation. They will not be able to overcome the world that hates them and seeks their destruction, but our Lord Himself has overcome the world.

The fathers of the Church have given us this passage just before we remember our Lord’s ascension into heaven and the sending of the Holy Spirit to us. It is a kind of flashback to a turning point in the training of the disciples, indeed, a pivotal moment in the history of the Church. At last, they are just beginning to understand the nature of our Lord’s ministry. There will be no glorious kingdom of this world. Instead, there will be pain and suffering. There will be tribulation. There will be a cross.

And yet, through it all, Jesus has good news for them, a gospel of victory and peace. Even though they will be harassed and circled by the evil one their whole lives long. For no matter what may befall the disciples, no matter what may (and will) happen to the Lord’s little flock, we will be just fine. For He has overcome the world.

And given that our Lord has done it all for us, we can get on with carrying out His work with no thought of how we can overcome the world, how we can make ourselves worthy of Him, how we can buy, beg, borrow, steal, or earn our way into the kingdom.

He has overcome the world, dear friends. The kingdom is already ours!

And we are free to live in that victory. We have been freed from a spirit of timidity that would make us only hearers of the Word, and not doers. For we have come face to face with ourselves, our ugly selves, our sinful selves in the law’s unflattering mirror. And Jesus has not only made us perfect in God’s sight, He has even overcome the mirror on our behalf. We can do good works without even looking in the mirror, without looking over our shoulder, hoping that God and men are somehow keeping score. We know what our image is already, for we have been made in God’s image. And even though we have made our image ugly by sin, it is our Lord, the image of God’s righteousness made flesh, that has recreated that image into one of beauty, for He has overcome the world on our behalf.

Because the Lord has saved us, we can indeed do good works without counting the cost, without seeking praise, without expecting a reward. For we have already been rewarded for the greatest work of all – the work of our Lord on the cross, which is ours by faith. Dear brothers and sisters, do you realize how remarkable this is? Do you see how this changes everything? You already have the entire glorious, eternal kingdom of God. You don’t have to work for the kingdom, but now you are free to share the kingdom that is already yours through Jesus, purely out of love. Selfishness has been removed from the equation.

We have been freed up to practice, in the words of St. James, “pure and undefiled religion” which is “to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted by the world.” The need to be “holier than thou” has been swept away. Our futile attempts to enter the kingdom through craftiness and industry are meaningless. We have been brought in through the front door of the banquet hall as a child of the king, borne on a cross, and marked with blood and water.

We are free to simply help people out of love and compassion. This is indeed a religion “pure and undefiled” – liberated from the self-centered need to earn a prize, freed from the tyranny of the scorecard, and forever separated from a desire to prove ourselves worthy of the kingdom.

And since we are worthy, this is exactly why we are to bridle our tongues. We are royalty, not drunken brawlers in the gutter. We are priests and co-regents with God’s holy Son, not shifty con men and shamefully attired harlots. We are more than conquerors through Him who overcame the world, aristocrats, not petty grumblers who take God’s mercy for granted and turn ourselves into a curse for the servants of the Lord, instead of a blessing.

For like the believers Moses writes of in Numbers, we are according to the flesh grumbling sinners who need to repent. “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you” the repentant children of Israel confess to Moses, “pray to the Lord that he would take away the serpents from us.” And thanks be to God for their repentant hearts!

For the grumblers who dogged Moses and Aaron, plaguing their ministry with complaints in the very face of the Lord’s bountiful goodness, brought a curse of serpents upon the entire people of God. The serpent, who led our ancestors astray in the Garden, became a blight upon the children of Israel in the wilderness. And see how the Lord uses a serpent to defeat the serpent, even as our Lord Jesus overcomes the world by coming into the world, even as He overcomes death by death, even as He overcomes sin by becoming sin for us. The snake became a means of salvation, even as the serpent, the devil, unwittingly became a pawn in his own destruction and a tool by whom the Lord won salvation for us.

We sinners must repent! We must repent of our indifference to widows and orphans. We must repent of our ungratefulness, our grumbling, our rebellion, and our lack of faith. We must repent of putting our faith in ourselves to overcome the world, when it is our Lord who has overcome the world on our behalf.

And in so doing, we can gaze upon the Crucified One, the flesh that takes the place of bronze, the Man that takes the place of the serpent (all the while crushing the serpent’s head), the cross that takes the place of a pole, the Resurrected One that takes the place of death, the life of freedom and true religion that takes the place of burdensome rules and the false religion of hypocrisy.

Dear brothers and sisters, we who gaze upon Christ Crucified, we who have been healed by the One who has fulfilled the prophecy of the serpent on the pole, the One who washes us clean with baptismal water and gives us His very flesh and blood to eat and to drink, speaks plainly to us, without figures of speech. He has overcome the world.

For in spite of the world, the devil, our flesh, our sinfulness, our grumbling, our constant battle with the image we see in the mirror, the daily struggle with the Old Adam, in spite of all these things, our Risen Lord has made a promise: “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace.”

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.

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