Sunday, May 18, 2014

Fifth Sunday of Easter (A) 2014

+ In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti Amen +

Text: John 14:9
Theme: Knowing the Father in Christ

Dear friends in Christ Jesus,

God is never detained by frivolous matters. Yet the detail of His care extends to the minute and personal particulars of our lives. Christ knows us and through Him we have intimacy with the Father. Faith dares to enter where reason cannot tread. There are no shortcuts on our Christian journey. We must tread the path laid out for us. The Spirit leads us on the road to the Father, a road that can only run through Christ. Jesus is the way to the Father. He is the gate of the sheep, the door to heaven.

Today’s gospel reading is commonly requested at funerals; understandably so. Jesus gives believers supreme comfort about heaven and eternal life. Few things are more unsettling than facing our mortality. Stephen faced the violent death of martyrdom. He was notable as the first of his kind. Thankfully not all encounter death in the same way. Many believers gradually succumb to age and frailty. Yet our core belief is still tested. As Christians we do not use our faith as some kind of gimmick. We take refuge in Him who bled for us. He has supremacy over death. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,”1 Christ said.

Jesus’ words were meant to be reassuring. He was going to prepare a place in the Father’s house. Yet for some of the disciples His statements were still unsettling. Philip initiates the conversation that ensues, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.”2 He just wanted something a little more tangible; a peak into heaven, a glimpse of the Father. He wanted what human nature always wants to bolster its confidence- proof. But once proof becomes the decisive criterion there is no need for faith. “Jesus answered: ‘Don’t you know Me Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen Me has seen the Father.”3

Evidence was important to show that Jesus was the Messiah. The contemporaries of Jesus were privileged to be eye-witnesses. Healing the sick and even raising the dead He soon drew huge crowds. The validity of His miracles was incontestable even for the highest authorities. The Pharisees acknowledged His power and even King Herod hoped to see a sign from Him. Jesus Himself commends the miraculous evidence to those struggling to believe who He was. As we look back in historical perspective we can see that Christianity can point to people, places, times, and events that corroborate and authenticate the biblical witness. No world religion can present even a fraction of the data in its own defence. Christianity is exceptionally well-grounded historically.

That doesn’t mean we dismiss the supernatural. God is, by definition, not only the One who can suspend the laws of nature, He created them. The personal nature of God becomes relevant to us in Christ. The majesty of God was hidden in the humanity of Jesus. In the womb of Mary the Holy Spirit conceived the Son of God in human flesh. The miraculous nature of this truth cannot be forfeited. In Christ God entered the world in human form. This same Christ died bodily on the cross to make atonement for the sins of all people. Three days later He threw off the chains of death guaranteeing that He has the power to overcome death for us too. These miracles also are nonnegotiable.

So, until we are fully released from the consequences of sin the role of faith can never be eliminated. Otherwise we would be in constant need of affirmation that the divinity of Christ hadn’t faded or that the Almighty God hadn’t become incapable or apathetic in addressing our concerns. The descendants of Noah forgot the miraculous rescue of their ancestors on the ark. The Israelites more quickly forgot the parting of the Red Sea. The crowds who followed Jesus famously altered their cheers of “Hosanna!” to cries of “Crucify Him” in less than a week. Would we fare any better? As long as we exist in this fallen realm there will always be the need for faith just as there is always the need for forgiveness.

Dear friends, at the core of any expression of sinfulness- our greedy thoughts, our unkind words, our selfish actions- is a lack of fear that God will punish and a lack of trust that God is reliable. On the one hand Satan works hard to convince us our transgressions aren’t that bad and God will overlook them. On the other hand, when guilt burdens our conscience he wants us to think God will not forgive. Repenting is easy when we’re comfortable with the consequences. But then the guts of the matter have been ripped out. The Bible says, “In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”4

Can we relate to Stephen? Let’s not piously pretend that we can. Let’s not, in false humility, claim that our struggles or our commitment compare to his. Let’s reflect solemnly on and pray fervently for those whose lives are in danger for holding to the truth. The persecution of Christians around the world is rarely reported in our media. Many risk their lives and their livelihoods to confess Jesus as Lord. Freedom to worship is privilege that is largely taken for granted as evidenced by widespread apathy in the churches of the West.

It’s always good have our problems put in perspective. Doing so keeps selfish complaining in check and cultivates gratitude. But it must be done biblically. It’s not as simple as reminding ourselves there is always someone worse-off. Christ doesn’t expose us to unnecessary trials for no reason. He doesn’t bless us to make us lazy and presumptuous. In the tension of sin and grace, law and gospel, threat and promise our baptismal journey is navigated through prosperity and adversity. Without Christ at the centre we lose our bearings.

You see, the event of your baptism has a reciprocal relationship with your faith. Your baptism has more certainty than your religious fervor, sentiment or feelings about God or faith at any point in time. The strength of our conviction (a measurement subjective to ourselves) can never outweigh the validity of God’s promise. In the very words, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the son and of the Holy Spirit,” the Holy Spirit promises to grant faith and forgive sins. Every time you repent and believe you return to your baptism.

Christ is trustworthy even when we are full of doubt and falling to pieces. He is faithful to His own nature. His covenant with us is not rash. Our trust is not free-floating because His means of grace are sacred and reliable. His word, His promise, His presence make the sacrament what it is. It is His body given for you. It is His blood shed for you. It is His covenant, His seal, His unalterable pledge of grace. Let His words ring in your ears and lift your hearts: “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with Me that you also may be where I am.”5 Christ is the way to the Father, the gate to heaven.

Dear friends, much of our struggle in this life is due to our inability grasp the full consequences of His promises. How limited is our imagination! “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.”6To dwell in His eternal kingdom means we will not be vulnerable to boredom, not exposed to fear, not open to sorrow, not laden with worry, not lacking in knowledge, and not deficient in joy. Luther inspires us with these words, “This everlasting kingdom, however, contains in addition such immeasurable, glorious blessings as forgiveness of sins, peace with God, security against everlasting death and all evil, communion with the Divine Majesty and with all angels and saints, joy and pleasure in the whole creation, even in a physical sense. For this same body, which is now the old body, shall also become new, together with the whole creation, as the soul has already begun to become new in faith.”7 May God safeguard you in Him who is the way, and the truth, and the life. Amen.

+ In nomine Jesu +

1 John 14:1
2 John 14:8
3 John 14:9
4 Hebrews 12:4
5 John 14:3
6 1 Corinthians 13:12
7 Luther, AE 35:290

Fifth Sunday of Easter
18 May 2014
Reverend Darrin L. Kohrt