Video of the Divine Service here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Change is difficult for almost everyone. Even if people like change, even if they want change, that doesn’t mean change won’t be difficult. Change itself is not good or bad. But when we’re talking about changes to things that we hold dear, that we believe, of which we’ve been convinced, then change is that much harder. But the primary question for Christians can’t be: does this align with what I already know? That is probably going to be our initial reaction. We’ve all had times where we’ve heard someone say something from the Word of God and we’ve thought, that can’t be right. That doesn’t seem true. That doesn’t match what I’ve heard or what I was taught or what I’m convinced is true.
That may be our first reaction, but it cannot be how we measure what we hear. That would mean making ourselves the judge, the arbiter, the yard stick by which we measure things. Christians can’t do that. For Christians, the primary question isn’t, “Does that fit with what I already know?” We know, don’t we, that our ways and thoughts are not God’s ways and thoughts. So we don’t measure things by what we know, but by the Word of God. God’s Word is our measure, judge, arbiter, and yard stick. And we underestimate the power of our dying sinful nature if we think that when we become Christians—or even when we’ve been Christians for a long time—we think rightly and truthfully about all things. We always, continually, at every turn, have to come back and measure things by the Scriptures. Not: is this what I think? But: Does this match the Scriptures?
We absorb things from people and from the world around us. We drift, we wander, we fail. We are not our own lights (Flannery O’Connor). So we’ve never heard enough, we’re never finished with the Scriptures, we’re never graduated and on to something else. We always test—again, again, and again—our thoughts and understandings and convictions against what God says, what Jesus says, and what He says through His prophets and apostles.
The readings from the Scriptures that we have today give us an opportunity to do that, because both Paul and Jesus give us some words that are contrary to the tide and flow of the world around us. Paul, for example, says that “love is the fulfilling of the law.” Now, you are unlikely to ever hear those two words used in the same sentence unless they’re being contrasted. For most people, love and law are nearly opposites. Law is binding, constricting, restricting, limiting. Love is freeing, unbound, unrestricted, open. But Paul says that do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet, and whatever other commandments there are, are summed up in this single word: love your neighbor as yourself. Love is not free-form. Love is not a nice, warm feeling I have in my heart. Love is concrete action on behalf of another person.
How do we know that? Because we know what love is from our experience? No. Because God is love. And His love is wrapped up in the flesh and blood of Jesus who suffers, dies, and rises from the dead, who now delivers His love in the concrete forms of water, words, bread, and wine. Concrete, physical action on our behalf—on your behalf and mine. And so our love has form and shape and the contours of the will of God for people. We don’t always see clearly how God’s will, summed up in His law, is loving. But why would we? Our love is corrupted and distorted. What is loving action is what God says it is, not what we think it might be. If you want to know what the love of God within the Body of Christ looks like, just re-read Romans 12 and 13. Paul gives very specific form to the love that Christians have for one another and for everyone for whom Christ died.
Love is to give to each one what we owe to them—even, Paul says, to the governing authorities! Love is to do what each one needs, and Jesus calls those who are in need, those who are dependent, those who are helpless—He calls them the greatest under the Reign of Heaven. When we hear the greatest, our measurement of those who are great are those above us, those who seem to be more important, those who have earned their greatness through accomplishment and victory and success. But Jesus unravels our measuring sticks and tells us that the greatest are those who can do nothing, who need everything, who are dependent—like us when Christ comes to serve, and not to be served.
The little ones who depend on others, the sinners who need forgiveness and restoration, the weak, the new in faith—these are the greatest as far as Jesus is concerned. Give to everyone what is owed to them; owe no one anything but love; love is the fulfilling of the law. What we do for each other is only an echo of what God has done for us in Jesus, but even in our weakness, God continues to serve His creatures through other creatures. This is what the Body of Christ looks like: receiving everything from God in Christ; giving everything to others in love.
And whatever else we have to do, there is nothing beside our own faith that is as important as making sure that we do whatever we can to raise our own children in the fear and instruction of the Lord, making sure that our own children hear the great works of God told to them. Then they will learn by long use and repetition that all their thoughts and ideas and opinions are subject to the Word of God and that everything is tested and measured by what God says and does. As important as Sunday school is, as important as instruction in the Christian faith is—as important, in other words, as Sunday school teachers, preschool teachers, Lutheran day school teachers, and pastors are—nothing can replace faithful parents who make sure that they form life-long habits in their own children. We can plant all the seeds we want, but if those seeds are not watered, fed, and nourished, they will likely die like the seeds that the birds eat, the seeds withered because of shallow soil, and the seeds choked out by the weeds. We can say whatever we want, but our actions prove what we really think is important.
It’s not about finding some new, shiny thing that will attract some more people. It’s about rejoicing in the gifts that God has given in His Son. If that’s not enough for us, then nothing ever will be. There’s more than enough change in the world around. Things change faster than they ever have before. Let’s give our children and all the little ones in faith something that is as solid as the rock who is Christ, because it’s nothing other than Christ and His Words. He sustains us. He gives us life. He nourishes us. And He does it in the ways that He’s done it for thousands of years, in hundreds of countries, for millions of people: He claims them in baptism, He feeds them with His Word and Supper, and He delivers to them the forgiveness of His death and resurrection. May He make us faithful in this place, in the work He’s given us, for the sake of this generation and every generation to come.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 9/9/17