Friday, April 26, 2013

John 10:11-18 Jesus Our Good Shepherd

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
       I’m sure you remembered what happened. Jesus healed a man who was blind from birth. The spiritual authorities disapproved and conducted an investigation in hopes of discrediting the Lord. The man he healed stood up for Jesus and said that he had come from God. Jesus then said to the Pharisees and other officials that he came into the world for judgment so that those who do not may see and those who see may become blind. The Lord’s antagonists were mystified. They wondered if they were blind, too. Jesus then told them the parable from this morning’s gospel, and they were even more puzzled. By the grace of God, this morning’s parable doesn’t confuse us. He has given us the ability to unwrap the mystery.
       Jesus wanted to draw a distinction between faithful spiritual leaders and those, like Pharisees – we have plenty with similar temperaments in our own day – who try to put themselves or their own rules in the place of God.
       In Bible times, sheep lived in square stone enclosures with an entrance on one side. Sometimes more than one flock would spend a night in the same fold. When a shepherd came to gather his own sheep in the morning, he stood at the entrance to the enclosure and called for them. He had a special name and a unique call for each one. Every sheep knew its shepherd and responded obediently to its own special call. After he gathered his flock out into the open, the shepherd walked in front of them and led them to the pasture for grazing.
       There were – and are – faithful spiritual leaders – shepherds – who point there people – the flock – toward Christ and the salvation he offers. But there are others, as we said, who put themselves and their teachings and practices in the place of Christ. Jesus called them thieves and robbers. They took what people had to give them and offered false teaching in return. But the people – the flock – weren’t stupid. They didn’t pay attention to the pseudo-shepherds. They wanted to live and flourish, and so they listened to the shepherds who brought them the good news of salvation in Christ.
       “I am the door of the sheep,” Jesus said. True shepherds stick with him. He came to bring life and abundance. He is the door to the kingdom of God; the only way to enter is through faith in him. The true shepherd leads his flock by directing them to Christ and no one else.
       Now, you and I hear many voices in the course of a week – on the TV, radio, the voices of friends, neighbors, the people we work with, and family. Some of these voices talk about large questions that touch the spirit – that the world is a mess, say, and there is no hope for it. Some folks tell us not to worry, just be happy and others urge us to spend and buy and keep up with the Jones’s. Or it may be that a little voice inside us nags away persistently. Stronger than all these voices, though, is the voice of our Lord – clear, steady, trustworthy, assuring us that he has come to bring life. He promises that his blood washes away our sins. We pay attention to what he says, for he is the door to abundant life.
       Jesus also called himself “the Good Shepherd”, who calls to us by his Word, the gospel and the sacraments, not a general call like a news broadcast, but highly personal. The Good Shepherd knows our names. He sustains a personal relationship with each of us and he does not let go. He intends to bring all of us into heaven on the last day.
       We keep faith with him now. The world, the devil, and our flesh work on us so that a part of our souls resents the idea that we need a shepherd to watch over us. We humans aim for independence and self-reliance; we feel defeated when we discover that we can’t achieve very much on our own. We depend on God and on others. The Shepherd pardons our waywardness; he draws us back to him in faith. He teaches us that folks who are aware of their weaknesses have an advantage. We know that we need help; we welcome the Good Shepherd who protects us and guides us through every evil.
       Satan influences many things. He takes pleasure in tempting Jesus’ beloved sheep; he wants to scatter us and divide us and destroy our faith. Jesus is stronger than the devil, however; he has already conquered Satan. His victory strengthens us and gives us confidence that we’ll cope well with every situation that comes our way. “Even though I walk through the valley of death,” King David wrote, “I will fear no evil.” Jesus makes us brave and stout-hearted and hopeful of eternal blessedness beyond the grave.
       He protects us now from the damage the devil wants to do to our minds. Satan works to shatter our joyfulness. He’s happy if we think we can’t do anything right or that bad things will inevitably happen to us. The Shepherd restores our joy in life and our trust in ourselves. He teaches us that despite the presence of sin, including our own, the world is not a miry swamp but God’s good creation, when with his help we keep on with our activities in joy and hope. Because we are Jesus’ sheep, our power to act for good is stronger than sin and evil. We don’t fear that the bad parts of life will conquer us. The Shepherd rules our thoughts and feelings so that temptations don’t overpower us. Instead, they become occasions for the strengthening of our faith.
       The Shepherd is a friend who rejoices in our happiness and who is close to us during hours of trial. He sticks with us and doesn’t leave us to seek his own advantage. He knows us through and through. The misunderstandings of our neighbors may wound us, but we have a friend in our Shepherd who knows us the way we need to be known, even better than we know ourselves. We trust his knowledge; we thrive on his mercy; we rest in his love.
       At the same time, our Shepherd uses us. We represent him. We make sure that our neighbors see by our example that Jesus is the kind of Shepherd who accepts everybody, especially the weak and sick and folks in need. When others see Jesus’ hospitality in us, then they are likely to turn to him with hope and expectation.
       Martin Luther once said that it’s a terrible evil when one person judges another. Jesus’ kingdom is designed to heal souls that are sick and needy. He is the only judge. We make a mistake if we think highly only of people who are strong and holy and self-reliant, for we can’t see into the hearts of our neighbors. All people are by nature sinners to the core, so we don’t insist that they put on a show of piety and devotion for our benefit. There are only weak and sickly people in Christ’s flock and his pasture is really a hospital where the sick and infirm, whose souls need loving care, are gathered together. Jesus’ sheep welcome other needy folks and make room for them.
       I once read in a newspaper that some of Canada’s leaders have said that Canadians are losing their ties to politics and government and even to one another. Canadians long for a system that creates enduring, respectful ties among people. In other words, our neighbors are looking for fellowship, communities, friends, faith, and sound values to live by. No one builds strong, meaningful relationships the way Christ and his church do. What people need is the Good Shepherd and his flock.
       We rejoice, then, in the community that the Good Shepherd sustains at St. Peters – and throughout his kingdom – and that he will keep on going with his loving guidance. He has built up among his people what everyone needs. When our neighbors are ready to find a better way than the worldly one, they’ll come to the church. We trust that the Shepherd will make us ready to receive him.
       Now, we don’t expect droves of people to come to the church and we don’t accuse ourselves of failure because they stay away. Lots of people take offense at Christ and his flock, for the church doesn’t fall into step with the ways of secular society. The church challenges the world around her, while worldly people don’t like to have their comfortable ways disrupted. Besides that, human nature responds to what we can see and touch and count, where Jesus is hidden from our view and we take hold of him by faith.  Then there are times when he conceals himself even from his church and he acts as if he’d forgotten that she exists, because he allows his flock to be humbled and oppressed. The church’s opponents, meanwhile, delight in his humiliation and wallow in it.
       Even so, Jesus loves his sheep. He calls to us. His knowledge of us comforts us. It might look like the opposite at times, but he won’t forget us or forsake us. He claims us as his own and gives us satisfying, steady ways of life that won’t perish, lives of joy and hope that will last forever because the Good Shepherd has defeated death and the grave and all the devil’s schemes. He makes sure that we receive the fruits of his victory.
       What do we do in return? We know the shepherd and give thanks. Although he’s hidden and we hear his voice with ears of faith and not our physical ears, Jesus makes it possible for us to hear him. His words are the only ones we can trust completely. And so we give thanks that he is our shepherd. And we ask him, in faith that he will grant our wish, to keep us in his flock. In his name we rejoice. AMEN
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

John 21:1-14 -- The Lord's Generosity

Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,

       This morning’s readings bring us a picture of the fullness of God – the extent of his creation and his generosity. John, the author of Revelation, describes the thousands and thousands of angels encircling the throne of grace singing and rejoicing and praising God. Just before this passage, John mentions a great multitude of resurrected believers, too numerous for anyone but God to count, standing before the throne and the lamb, crying in loud voices in praise of God.
       The Lord is not a miser; heaven will be full on the Day of Judgement. He fills the world with love, and creation responds in praise. He spreads the gospel lavishly. Absolutely everyone who believes in Christ is saved. All sins are forgiven. Jesus’ blood washes us clean. The Father’s loving arms are wide open. He breaks down barriers, too, so that reluctant hearts and sluggish minds can take hold of him with the joy of faith.
       We see God’s generosity, as well, in his concern for earthly things. He provides abundantly. The disciples had been fishing all night and had caught nothing. The Lord knew about their struggles and provided more fish than they could have hoped for. He rewards effort. He blesses folks who strive in faith. He frequently makes us wait, but he does provide, and often with surprising abundance.
       We should remember, as well, that he has been generous toward his church in this world of turmoil. He has kept the church going, even though she has numerous critics and despite the many flaws of the faithful that result from sinful flesh and contact with the turbulent world that surrounds God’s kingdom. He provides servants, and St. Peter’s has a few of those. He brings together people from various backgrounds and with different personalities and he makes us into a community. He changes us and stretches us. We see three examples in our readings this morning.
       Paul, for one, was a dynamo, a greatly gifted man. He had a powerful brain; he knew how to discipline himself. He wasn’t afraid of work or sacrifice or unpopularity. If he didn’t serve the church, he would have been as productive public servant, a cabinet minister, say, who did a lot for his country. But the Lord gave him a new personality and the ability to devote his talents to the gospel. He turned him into a gift to the church.
       Peter was a different sort of person, strong and impulsive. He worked by intuition and liked to get his way. He knew how to look out for himself and loved to be at the center of things. Somebody said about Peter that his impulses were generous, but he followed them as much because they were his own feelings as they were generous ones. He chose his own path and walked wherever he wanted. This would change, though, as the years passed, so the Lord said to him, “When you are old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will…bring you where you do not wish to go.” This is often the way. We’re free when we’re young, but responsibilities mount with the years and God’s people find that we make a sacrifice of ourselves and live for others. Peter became this kind of servant. – a gift from the Lord to the church. Like the Lord, according to church tradition, Peter, too, was crucified. An old story tells how Peter escaped from his prison in Rome the night before his death. As he was coming along one of the Roman roads, a familiar figure bearing as cross came to him. “Lord, where are you going?” Peter asked.
       “I’m going to Rome to be crucified again.”
       Peter turned and went back to his prison. The guards found him in his cell when they came for him the next morning. So an old church legend tells us that the Savior used Peter and gave him a new self, but he didn’t change Peter’s nature. He battled with sin and selfishness just like the rest of us. Peter is a source of encouragement, then. His weaknesses were obvious, but the Lord claimed him as a friend and servant and gave him a position of leadership in the kingdom. By his generosity, God doesn’t despise the imperfect, but he molds us and uses us as vessels of his glory. We each in our own way are gifts to the church.
       John’s story was unique, too. Where Peter and Paul would have done well at whatever they turned to, John’s qualities could shine only in the church, for his great gift was the capacity to love. He was an expert at loving. He loved the Lord and his fellow believers; he loved the Christian community. “Beloved, let us love one another,” he wrote, “for love is from God. And everyone who loves is born of God and knows God…In this is love, not that we love God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another…if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us…God is love and the one who abides in love abides in God.”
       John was especially sensitive to the value of love among Christians, for when we love our brothers and sisters in Christ, we imitate God’s love. The love in the Christian family is a sign to outsiders that God is working among us. John recorded this saying of our Lord’s, “By this, all men will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another.”
       All the apostles, like our Savior, emphasize the importance of Christian love, but for John it’s a special quality, the direction of his soul. He knew how to subordinate his own self, to bury his ego, in service to the Lord. For John, Christ was great and he was very small. Church tradition has it that John worked at Ephesus in Turkey for many decades and that he lived to be very old. Near the end of his days, he needed to be carried to worship and even then he could say again and again, almost like a motto, “Little children, love one another.” The more we Christians love each other, the stronger our community becomes. As John suggested, the love among Christians acts like a magnet. It draws seekers to the church and causes people to wonder about what we have and how they can claim it for themselves.
       Anyway, the church is God’s community, where different kinds of people are brought together to flourish and find their destinies. Christians aren’t all the same. We each have our own talents and our own contributions to make. The church uses many kinds of people. Jesus uses everyone he draws to him in faith. There’s more freedom in the church than in the materialistic society that surrounds us. The church has room for all of us.
        God is generous. St. Peter’s people respond with praise and thanksgiving. We’re something like Paul in our loyalty to God’s word and our willingness to bring the gospel to others. We’re like Peter in persistence and our ability, under God, to look out for ourselves. And we’re also like John, loyal to the truth, who possessed the gift that is unique to the church – the art of Christian love. He surrendered his will to the Saviour and lived in love.
        Somebody said that Christians show their love for unbelievers by spreading the gospel in works of evangelism and by patiently enduring misunderstanding and ignorance. The love among sisters and brothers in Christ is different. Christians encourage one another and offer moral support. We’re kind and forbearing and unselfish. We don’t remember wrongs. The Holy Spirit forms us into a community where sinners may lay down their burdens at the foot of the cross and receive the hope to carry on. We help one another to follow the Lord.
       A time is coming when we’ll join millions of other believers at the throne of grace singing eternal praises to our God. Right now, though, we live in the same uncertain world as the disciples, who fished all night without catching anything – and probably not for the first time. We know what it means to be unsure about employment. We know about illness, loss, the misbehavior of others. We know what it means to sin and need forgiveness. We know the blessed relief of absolution. Whatever it means to be human, both good and bad, sin and righteousness touches us. We have the advantage of faith and the trust that the Savior will provide abundantly. He sent the disciples 153 fish, many more than they needed, and then invited them to breakfast. He fed them from a single fish burning on charcoal, just as he once turned a few loaves and fish into enough food for many thousands. How often he provides for us! His promise to keep on providing is an invitation to be content and at peace. His generosity won’t fail.
       One of the things he generously provides is the fellowship of our worshipping community. As we meet the world each day, it makes a difference to us that we have a community of Christian friends, who think as we do about God and the world, who want the best for us and who encourage us to strive for what’s good and who offer moral support, not just in good times but day after day.
       What a blessing it is to know other Christians who can offer us an understanding shoulder t lean on or a piece of advice at a timely moment. Our Heavenly Father, out of the fullness of his generosity, plans it that way. St. Peter’s is a result of his wise provision.
       The love among Christians, sturdy, faithful, not drawing attention to itself, is a foretaste of the joys of heaven. The Lord prepares us now for greater joys to come. We thank him for his generosity toward us. We rejoice that he includes us, along with his first disciples, among his beloved people. In Jesus’ Name, AMEN.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.      

Friday, April 5, 2013

John 20:19 - 31 Fruits of the Resurrection

Grace and peace to you from him who is and who was and who is to come,
   It didn’t look very promising. Only Jesus could make something of it. The disciples were so frightened that they had to make sure that the doors to the building they were in were locked, and one of them didn’t believe in the Resurrection at all. At least they were together in one place, though, and ready for something to happen.  They must have been amazed to see Jesus suddenly standing in their midst in his glorified and risen state. Nothing could confine him or keep him from going where he wanted to go. His appearance was a miracle. We don’t understand it now, but we will understand better when our own bodies take on their heavenly form.
       The appearance of the resurrected Lord changed the disciples. The came to believe that Jesus is the Messiah the Jewish people had been expecting for centuries and they had life in his name through their faith. They felt the effects of the Resurrection in their own lives. And that’s our topic this morning – the effects of the Resurrection.
       Peace first. Jesus said “peace be with you” three times. Like the first visitors to the empty tomb, the disciples had been frightened.  They had seen the crucifixion or heard about it and wondered if the gospel would fade away, along with the good news of salvation and the presence of God in their lives.  Moreover, what would secular authorities do to people who’d been close to Jesus? A lot of things concerned them. The Risen Lord quieted their fears and brought them the peace of soul they needed to pick themselves up and go on with the work he’d given them. He didn’t promise to keep them away from danger and difficulty – after all, look what he’d endured. Instead, he removed their fears and warmed the chill in in their hearts. He gave them courage, confidence, and cheerfulness.
       The peace that comes at the end of fighting or when poverty or sickness are taken away are great blessings. War has taken the lives of millions of people in the last century and disrupted millions more.  We pray that civil peace come quickly there and give thanks that Canada is at peace at home and that her people find peaceful ways to settle disagreements.
       Jesus has taught us, though, that peace from God reaches deeper than civil peace. God’s peace changes us and brings us joy. Jesus calms us and carries us through troubles and times of tension. Sickness and poverty may strike, news reports of war and crime may unsettle us, sin and the devil may threaten, but because his peace is in our hearts, Jesus protects us from numbing distress and to such a degree that we Christians are stronger and braver when conflict is present than during serene days. His peace reaches deep into our souls. The Lord lets the devil frighten us; earthly troubles vex us. Never mind. The Spirit of Jesus – the Holy Spirit – gives us courage. He brings rest to burdened consciences so that we’re brave and sturdy no matter what comes our way.
       Jesus’ resurrection proclaims to us that he conquered sin, death, and the devil. He will provide for all our needs so that we never lack what is necessary. We bring our sinfulness to the resurrected Lord and receive his pardon. We cling to him if we are sick or in difficulties or if resources are slender, trusting that he will provide for us, comfort us, and give us strength. He promises that no evil is so great that it will injure us permanently or bring us to despair.
       Martin Luther said that confidence in rocky times is the hallmark of a Christian. If we aren’t at peace when earthly trouble strikes, we are not yet Christians. A Christian trusts that Jesus has risen for him or her and that he guides her or him through the tangles and challenges of everyday living, and so we ask Jesus to keep faith in his promises alive in our minds and deep in our souls so that we may experience the peace of a Christian.
       Joy is another fruit of the resurrection. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Risen Lord. Faith in Christ brings the greatest joy we will ever know. He takes away whatever is bad for us – sorrow, sadness, the effects of stress, sin. He conquered death and the devil for us. We live because he lives. He does for us what we can’t do for ourselves. We take a heavy burden on ourselves if we struggle to win God’s favor on our own because he demands perfection. Jesus lifted the load from our shoulders and put it on himself. He makes up for our poor performances and calls us to rest in him.
       Jesus’ work for us doesn’t mean, however, that we can lean back and take advantage of a free ride. It means that we know where we stand with God, so we dive into the tasks he’s prepared for us with joyful hearts. The freedom we have in Jesus brings us the fullness of joy that comes to people who have been released from captivity. Rejoice in the Lord always, Paul wrote. We rejoice because Jesus offers us a life with God that nothing can ever take away from us. He expects obedience from us, but he takes note of our weaknesses and never asks for more than we can give. Our Savior never shuts the door on anyone. He reaches out and lifts us up and invites us to walk along beside him. We rejoice and ask him to keep on giving us the joy that comes with living by faith in him.
       And so we come to another fruit of the resurrection – the blessings of faith. After he heard reports that the Lord had risen, Thomas said that he needed not only to see the Lord but also to touch his wounds. Now, we make a distinction between doubt and the unbelief that rejects God. The Pharoah with whom Moses pleaded for the release of his people and Jesus’ enemies Judas and King Herod all rejected God totally and with hardness of heart. Thomas was different. He wrestled with a challenge. Faith isn’t always easy, even for folks who have walked with God all their lives. The Crucifixion must have shocked Thomas. If a man like Jesus gets treated cruelly and unjustly...He had good reason to believe what the apostles told him, though, because they were his friends and honest men who had nothing to gain from telling a lie. If ten people from St. Peters told us about something they’d seen with their own eyes, we would believe them. Thomas wanted more than reliable reports. He wanted to see the Lord for himself. He yearned to believe, but he found obstacles standing in the way. Reason, past history, and experience all taught him what he thought was the truth about life. He overlooked God’s promises and the dimension of faith.
       It’s natural to believe in Christ, as natural as breathing or the abundance of the earth, and Thomas longed to overcome the obstacles that thinking had put in his way. He wanted the joy of faith that he couldn’t create on his own. He needed God’s help, and Jesus graciously reached out to him. Thomas responded with gratitude and understanding. He called Jesus what no one had called him before – “my Lord and my God.” By the grace of God, the resurrected Jesus became personal for him. He pardoned Thomas’s sins, including his doubt; he took away his anxiety; he assured him that God was not his enemy but a friend who would guide and protect and guide. He offered Thomas a place in eternity and found him work to do for the kingdom. Thomas would live by faith from then on.
       The same goes for us. We live by faith. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” Jesus said. How blessed in God’s eyes are Jesus’ brothers and sisters.
       Power, as we said, is another fruit of the resurrection. Church tradition tells us that in later life, Thomas founded the Christian church in India. The Holy Spirit empowered him to leave his home and his friends to serve the gospel of Christ. God’s power works in us, too. Martin Luther wrote that it comforts and strengthens us to know that God arouses in us the same power that worked for Jesus. He gives us the power to resist temptation and to overcome evil, to rise above everyday troubles and to live by faith. When we speak to our neighbors the words that Jesus gives us in the Bible, they count just as much as if he were speaking them himself. And even though we don’t have the power to create faith in someone we know Jesus does empower us to pardon offenses and to speak the good news of salvation in him.
       We share Jesus’ teaching about sin and God’s mercy, about our needs, and how God meets them. We set examples of faith, and we lift up our families and our neighbors in prayer.
       So – to sum up – peace, joy, faith, and power are some of the fruits of the resurrection we prayed for a few minutes ago. Our Heavenly Father wants us to keep asking him for them. We may be tempted to sit back and say that comfort is our goal. God’s word opens our hearts to receive our Lord’s gifts to us, day by day, Sunday by Sunday.
       The resurrection is more than words on a page. It’s a living, personal, powerful reality, our own possession. We ask our Heavenly Father by his grace to keep the resurrection working fruitfully in us, and so we rejoice to hear his promise that he will go on acting in our lives, building us up in peace, joy, faith, and godly powers. In his name we give thanks. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.