Saturday, August 19, 2017

Fierce, Unflagging, Freeing Faith

Faith Lutheran Church, Staples, MN
August 20, 2017/Pentecost 11
Matthew 15:21-28

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

“I love you…but right now I don’t like you.”

Have you ever said that to someone?  Or:  has someone ever said that to you?

“I love you…but right now I don’t like you” seems, at first blush, like a contradiction.   How can anyone love someone but not like them?

But ponder that for a moment, and you’ll realize that that’s exactly how things work.

We are bound together--with deep bonds of affection and trust—we’re bound together with all sorts of folks who from time to time baffle us, frustrate us, confuse us or simply drive us batty.   So it seems quite natural to look them in the eye and say:  “I love you, but right now I sure don’t like you.”

And, it’s also natural to want to say that to Jesus here in this morning’s gospel reading.

“I love you, Jesus, and I know that you love me unconditionally, but right now I don’t like you…I don’t appreciate how you responded to this Gentile woman—not one bit.”

Jewish Jesus and his Jewish followers have temporarily veered out of the land of the Jews and into the land of the non-Jews, that is:  the Gentiles residing in “the district of Tyre and Sidon.”

As they’re taking this temporary detour, a woman with a deep ache in her heart shows up….begging Jesus for help:   “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

But rather than lending a sympathetic ear (as we might expect Jesus to do!) he simply ignores this woman.  And his disciples—acting as though she isn’t even present—his disciples beg Jesus to dismiss this loud, annoying woman.

Jesus responds, seemingly in agreement with his perturbed disciples:  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

Here Jesus simply echoes the same instructions he’d already given his twelve disciples five chapters earlier in Mathew:  “Go nowhere among the Gentiles…but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” (Matthew 10:5-6)

Jesus, faced with this needy, pleading Gentile mother, now repeats himself.  He has not come for “outsider” women like this one.  Jesus understands his mission to be with needy Jewish mothers, members of “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

But the anxious woman is not deterred.  Neither Jesus’ stony silence, nor his disciples dismissiveness, nor Jesus’ restatement of his “Israel-only” mission holds her back.

This desperate Gentile mother can’t take “No” for an answer.  Kneeling before Jesus, assuming a posture of worship, she pleads “Lord, help me.”

…to which Jesus responds with a common Jewish slur against Gentiles, saying:  “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

You’d think that would have been the end of this episode.

But no!  Even in the face of such a stinging rebuke, this tenacious Gentile woman barrels ahead, relentlessly pleading her cause, daring even to take Jesus’ taunt and turn it to her favor:  “‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

It’s as if the woman is saying:  “OK, Jesus, you can regard me as just one more Gentile ‘dog.’  I’ll own that if I must, as long as I get to decide what kind of dog I am--not some filthy feral canine roaming the streets--but one of the house dogs, living with you Jewish chosen ones under our Master’s roof.   I don’t want any of the bread intended for your favored ones…but as a watchful puppy under the table, I will be there, ready to gobble up even the smallest crumb that might fall to the floor—and that—that crumb!--will be enough for me!”

Only in offering this astounding response to Jesus does the woman finally grab a hold of him in such a way that he cannot miss the fierceness of her daring trust: “’O Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.”

[PAUSE]  I love Jesus, and I know you do, too….but it’s hard to like the Jesus we meet here, at least at first, in this gospel story…

And yet, in some way we don’t fully understand, Jesus initial ignorance of this woman….Jesus’ insistence that he has been sent to the Jews before the Gentiles….Jesus’ harsh words to this woman…..all the stuff we don’t like about Jesus here!—it all somehow sets the stage for this outsider to reveal just what great faith looks like.

How can that be?  

Most of the time in the gospels, when Jesus is among his Jewish insiders, his closest followers, they disappoint him.   They are slow to catch on.   They keep missing his point.   They display faith, but it’s too often a weak, tepid, puny faith….

But when Jesus ventures out into foreign territory, when he encounters someone not of his tribe, when he’s accosted by this one who simply will not take “No” for an answer….only here does Jesus uncover the great faith, the mega-faith that he prizes more than anything else.

It’s as if Jesus’ initial silence toward her, his disciples disdain for her, their fruitless efforts to silence her and make her go away….it’s as if all such opposition acts like a whetstone that only sharpens this woman’s faith to a razor’s edge, transforming it into such a faith so tenacious that it sniffs out and exploits even the tiniest opportunity.

Just a crumb—just a crumb—will be enough for this amazing mother and her demon-possessed child.   “O woman, great is your faith!”

There is something for us here, something we perhaps did not come to church expecting to receive this morning.

What’s here for us is a powerful, graphic, unforgettable testimony to the fact that faith shines brightest and surest when it’s most under attack.   As Martin Luther said:  it is in the nature of faith to “step gaily into the darkness.”[1]

We receive that astounding reality in this gospel story that is simultaneously deeply troubling and powerfully liberating.

And, just for good measure, we receive one more gift here:  a fresh, eye-opening awareness that no one—absolutely no one!—will be denied access to God’s life-rescuing, death-defying, future-opening freedom in Jesus Christ….freeing faith that stubbornly clings to God’s goodness in spite of whatever might call that goodness into question.  

I started out by confessing that I love Jesus but I don’t like how Jesus treats this woman here in Matthew 15…

….but by the end of this story, it seems as if this stranger somehow needled Jesus into seriously rethinking his mission in the world.  

This Gentile woman, with her nagging incessant pleading for a demon-ravaged daughter, this woman pried open Jesus’ own understanding of his mission, a mission that could no longer focus solely on “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” but that now encompassed a whole host of others:  indeed, anyone and everyone who might imagine that Jesus came into this world to save and bless us all.

And that, my dear friends, is another good gift our ears are hankering to hear this morning.

Jesus came into this world for everyone, PERIOD.  

Jesus, the man from Galilee, may have grown up absorbing all sorts of first century Jewish assumptions…..Jesus may have thought, at least at first, that the best way to pursue his mission was to focus on “the lost sheet of the house of Israel,”….

….but by the end of Matthew’s gospel (having learned from human encounters like the one with this tenacious Gentile mother!)…by the time we get to chapter 28 of Matthew, in the blazing light of the resurrection, it was crystal clear that no one—absolutely no one—lives outside the scope of God’s all-encompassing love in Christ….

…which is why Jesus’ final word in Matthew’s gospel is: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…”

My dear friends, we need to be very clear about this—especially as we Americans wrestle with issues of race, ethnicity, and nationality in the light of the inexcusable ugliness that bubbled up a week ago in Charlottesville, Virginia.

In the community of Jesus Christ, there can be no room for prejudice or bigotry or hatred based on class or creed or color or any other category we use to wall ourselves off from one another.  

For we are the community of Jesus Christ, who “on the cross, opened his arms to all[2]…and in the power of his Resurrection commissions us all to make disciples of all nations.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen. 

[1] Roland Bainton, editor (1948), Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, Augsburg Press, p. 51
[2] “Thanksgiving at the Table,” Form V, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 65.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Running Out the Clock

First Lutheran Church, Battle Lake, MN
July 9, 2017/Pentecost 5
Romans 7:15-25a

A few weeks ago I heard one of the weirdest stories ever on public radio[1]

It was about this woman from New Jersey who suffered from epilepsy so severe that she was having seizures nearly all the time. 

Her physicians proposed a radical surgery—severing the cable of nerves that connected the left half of her brain with the right half of her brain.

For the most part the surgery was successful.  The woman’s near-constant seizures ceased.

But then she noticed something strange happening to her.   Sitting in her doctor’s office, her left hand started to unbutton her blouse—and the woman wasn’t making it happen. 

Other weird stuff happened:  the woman would light up a cigarette with her right hand—only to have it snubbed out by her left hand.   If the woman did something her left hand didn’t approve of, the hand would slap her face—sometimes leaving her black and blue.

The woman’s doctors diagnosed her with  Alien Hand Syndrome (I’m not making this up!)

That name of this diagnosis is a little misleading, though, because the problem was in her head, not her hand.

Alien Hand Syndrome comes from each hemisphere of the brain “having a mind of its own”—one hemisphere no longer in dialogue with the other hemisphere.

This strange, strange story helps us understand what the apostle Paul is saying here our text:  “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate….I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”  (Romans 7:15, 18-19)

For centuries readers have been puzzled by and even fought over this section of Romans 7, for at least two reasons:

First, Paul’s words fly in the face of conventional worldly wisdom that says we can change for the better if we just put our minds to it.  

Paul contends, instead, that “mind over matter” isn’t always necessarily so!

And we’re not just talking about addictions or bad habits, either.   In all the choices that matter most in life, we are not as free as we imagine ourselves to be.   We can often see the right path, but our feet fail to get us there.  

It’s as if we have our own version of alien hand syndrome—or alien tongue syndrome, alien feet syndrome, alien body syndrome.   

It’s as if a battle is going on inside us, threatening to undo us….
….which leads us to the second reason why we struggle so much with this 7th Chapter of Romans.

For Paul’s words here also seem to contradict conventional Christian wisdom, which tells us that this is not what our life in Christ should look like.  

Sure, Paul’s internal struggle could be part of our sorry, sinful past….but when Christ burst into our lives, when we’re baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, when Christ moves into our neighborhood and takes charge of our lives—all our hemming and hawing and wrestling with sin should be over, shouldn't it?!

Decades ago when I was serving a congregation in St James, MN, a young man came to my office one morning.   He wasn’t a member of my congregation, but he knew many of my members….and the young man was worried about them.   He had been praying fervently for them, and he told me that the Holy Spirit had laid a burden on him:  a question that he needed to ask me--Was I preaching enough about holiness?  

Based on this young man’s observations of my parishioners, most were still sinners.  They were not yet living the transformed, victorious, “better-every-day” lives of true believers!

This young man apparently assumed that here in Romans 7 the apostle Paul was having an historical flashback, a painful memory of how it used to be in his pre-Christian days…even though all indications in the text are that Paul was testifying to his present, here-and-now experience!

Here we are:  baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, dead to sin and alive to God, freed from everything that might hold us back—sin, death and the power of the devil—that “unholy trinity” Martin Luther spoke of so often.

But why don’t we always look that way, sound that way, act that way?   Why are we still thinking, speaking and acting contrary to whom God has recreated us to be in Christ?

The more we mull it over, the crazier it drives us!   With Paul here in Romans 7 we cry out:  “O wretch that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

And then, as Paul hears himself asking that very question…it’s as if the answer just comes to him:   “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

There is a struggle within us, a battle of wills inside of us—but with Paul, we know who’s going to prevail:  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

But shouldn’t it be more cut-and-dried than that?  Shouldn’t God’s victory over sin, death and power of the devil be plainer to see?  Why does life seem to be not an “either/or” proposition, but rather a “both/and” situation?

What if… what if….this isn’t a falsification of the Christian life?   

What if, rather, this is the very nature of the Christian life?

What if instead of imagining that in Christ we are now steadily progressing toward eternity, “onward and upward, always better, day by day?”  

What if, rather, we’re caught up in an “already-but-not-yet” life, at least for the time being?

What if this very paradox is, until God’s New Day finally arrives--what if this is exactly what the Christian life looks like?  

What if (as Luther liked to say) we are during our time on earth always simul justus et peccator—at the same time saint and sinner?  What if our Lord Jesus has decisively defeated all the forces of darkness—even though that victory is still playing itself out in us and in our world?

Let me offer a way to think about that.

When I was a teenager I loved basketball but was perfectly awful at playing basketball.

So, to stay connected with the game, I managed our high school’s basketball team, took care of the practice balls and other equipment, kept track of the statistics.

Once a year, though, even I got to play the game, in our high school’s annual intramural class tournament.  

It was our junior year, and my classmates were some of the best basketball players in Minnesota, so we wiped out all our opponents and then found ourselves in the championship game—us juniors against the seniors.

The game was a runaway victory for our junior class, the starting five, some of my best friends, running up a 40 point lead.
…we were so far ahead that when the fourth quarter started, all of us bench-warmers got to play.  We could do no wrong, after all, because victory was already in the bag… we poor miserable scrubs got out there on the basketball floor and played our hearts out.   Even I scored some points and received a standing ovation!

The game had already been won—decisively—but the final buzzer had yet to sound!

My dear friends in Christ, this offers a glimpse of what it’s like to live out our days in God’s “already but not yet” time.

At the Cross and the Empty Tomb our Lord Jesus won the victory—no doubt about it!   When our Lord Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” history effectively ended.  Jesus’saving work marked the turning point of the ages.

But there was still time left on the clock—there was a fourth quarter, in which you and I are still playing.   Sin, death and the power of the devil all have been trounced….but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still feebly trying to re-assert themselves, in the vain hope that they might still come out on top.

St Paul here in Romans chapter 7 sees all of that clearly.  He recognizes in his own bodily life, the futile attempts sin makes to try to win a battle it has actually already lost.

Where does that leave us?   Here’s the last word:  not “O wretch that I am!” but rather:  “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

And where does that leave us?

It leaves us free--free to live out the time remaining on the clock, free to trust God, love all our neighbors and care for this good earth.

It leaves us free to play our hearts out, just for the joy of simply to be the people God has made us to be.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.


Saturday, June 10, 2017

Risky Business: Always Reforming

2017 NW MN Synod Assembly
“Risky Business:  Always Reforming”
June 10, 2017 (Trinity Sunday texts)
Matthew 28:16-20

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

 “I bind unto myself today the strong name of the Trinity by invocation of the same, the Three in One and One in Three.”

This ancient creed from the pen of the great missionary who brought Christ to Ireland has been wed to a tune that’s entitled St Patrick’s Breastplate….thus reminding us that the “strong name of the Trinity” is meant to be worn like a garment all the days of our lives. 

But this isn’t just any garment.  A breastplate is always more than a “fashion statement!” 

You wear a breastplate only when you’re doing something so dangerous, so risky you could lose your life doing it.  

When knights of old were thrust into battle their breastplates were the parts of their armor that protected their “innards”--their heart, lungs and other vital organs.

So when Patrick-who wasn’t sailing in “tourist class”—made his way from Great Britain to Ireland, he did so fully intending to take on the pagans who ruled the roost—paving the way for the Greatest Good News about the One and Only God:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

And when Patrick made that 5th century mission probe into Ireland—believe me!--he was dressed for the occasion.  Patrick put on the whole armor of God, including the center-piece, the breastplate that protected his life:  the strong name of the Trinity bestowed on Patrick with the sign of the Cross in his baptism.  

Patrick the missionary bishop thus literally “wore” God on his body—the Three in One and One in Three true God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Now I realize that talking about armor and spiritual warfare is out of vogue these days.  Enlightened, gentle souls have tried to scrub out all that outdated militaristic language from our hymns and liturgies.

But this “cleansing” has not been complete —thank God!—because it’s hard to escape the sneaking suspicion that the Evil One has yet to surrender the field. 

The Word of the Gospel--we still realize--always, always, always confronts resistance in this world.

…which is why serving God’s mission in the world is always more than a “walk in the park.”

It is still, it has always been, and it shall always be risky business—a reckless, audacious venture undertaken in the face of stiff opposition…some of the worst of it arising from right inside of us, from the old Adam, the ancient Eve, who has yet to fully surrender.

These twin realities, of resistance “out there” and resistance “In here” bleed through this gospel lesson as we join the eleven surviving disciples, climbing that  mountain in Galilee, where the Risen Christ met them. 

Heavens to Betsy--what a motley crew those eleven fellows were—what a mixed bag of believers and skeptics—who, as Matthew takes pains to observe, “worshiped [Jesus], but some doubted”

Did you catch that?   Here they were, beholding the One who was crucified and resurrected, standing right before them—but if Mr. Gallup had been conducting a poll that day, Jesus wouldn’t have received a 100% approval rating even from those who knew him best! 

And yet, this same Jesus insisted on commissioning them--sending them out to take on the whole world….with nothing but his commands and his promises.

Can you imagine a more risky business than that?  Did those eleven rag-tag guys have a ghost of a chance, making good on Jesus’ Great Commission?
Apparently, though, this was the Risen Christ’s only plan.   He had no “Plan B” to fall back on.  Christ simply issued his marching orders:  “go…make disciples…baptize…teach!”

And then, like a big red ribbon tied up in a bow, Jesus wrapped those audacious commands inside an even more amazing promise:   “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."

You can do this, Jesus told them.  You can handle this risky business, because I’ll always have your back.

So they went out--those eleven perplexed, not-too-sure-of-themselves guys….

And because they went out in the strong name of the Trinity, you and I are gathered here this morning….being fed by Word and Sacrament at the start of this new day so that we can be commissioned to venture out, always under the protection of the strong name of the Trinity.

It’s what we do—even we lumpy, pasty Lutherans who are so often written off as bland, milquetoast, inconsequential folks.

Even we “militantly modest” Lutherans who’re hardly ever 100% sure of ourselves, even we somehow keep on keeping on.

It’s what we do, we risk-taking Lutheran followers of the Risen Christ.

Blame it on a feisty German monk named Martin who 500 years ago took on the entire Church and the whole world—just because he’d been taken captive by God’s sin-forgiving, barrier-breaking, future-opening Word in Jesus Christ.

Not that even feisty brother Martin never had his doubts about the whole enterprise we now call the Reformation!  Hardly!   More than once Martin was wracked by doubt, looking in the mirror and asking himself “Just who do I think I am—defying the Pope in Rome?”  

When Martin Luther wrestled with his own doubting heart, though, he remembered who he was and Whose he was:  “I am baptized!” he shouted!   And in the strength of that confession Luther changed the church and the world.

But that’s just what Lutherans do, don’t you know?

It’s why young Katie, a cloistered nun, hid with her sisters in a bunch of empty herring barrels to escape from their convent and make their way to Wittenberg to feel firsthand the refreshing breeze of freedom in Christ.   It’s why Katie, sworn to celibacy for life, broke that vow in order to make another vow, a marriage vow to Martin in 1525—just  to “spite the devil” as her husband colorfully put it.

But that’s the kind of things Lutherans do.

It’s why two centuries later Johann Sebastian Bach, baptismally bound to the strong name of the Trinity, poured himself into matching Gospel promises with heavenly music, always initialing his compositions with SDG--soli Deo gloria, “Glory to God alone!”    

It's why Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, cross-marked in his baptism, set sail from Halle, Germany in 1742 for the wilds of life on the North American mission field…

It’s why J. C. F. Heyer, American Lutherans’ first global missionary journeyed to far-off India three times, the last time in 1869 when he was 77—to found our companion synod, the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church.

  It’s why Sister Elizabeth Fedde left Tromso, Norway in 1883 to bring the Lutheran deaconess movement to North American…a movement that produced a host of Lutheran hospitals, nursing homes and other social ministries.  

It’s why Dietrich Bonhoeffer forsook the safety of London to return in 1935 to his homeland, Germany, and to resist the Nazis to the point of dying a martyr’s death ten years later.  

It’s why Leymah Gbowee, striding in the strength of her baptism, organized other strong women to say “Enough!” to the men of their country who had kept Liberia locked in a civil war fifteen years ago.

That’s the kind of risky stuff that Lutherans who bear the cross of Christ on their brows….it’s what we do!

And I’m not just talking about famous or semi-famous Lutherans either!

You and I, ordinary, garden-variety Lutherans also make choices, take stands, and embark on risky adventures--because that’s who we are as baptized ones, bound to the strong name of the Trinity.

I know this, because I’ve seen you in action….

I’ve seen congregational presidents who shun the easy way out and speak uncomfortable truths to their fellow Lutherans.

I’ve met youth who can’t wait to give a year of their life to Christ as YAGMS, Young Adults in Global Mission of the ELCA.

I’ve witnessed young parents and other caring adults, who are passionate about forming Christ in the next generations of Lutheran disciples.

I’ve heard Lutherans standing up for their neighbors who happen to be refugees or immigrants or adherents to other faiths or indigenous folks who lived on this continent long before many of our ancestors showed up. 

All of that is risky business—and it’s what we Lutherans do!

Better yet:  it’s what Christ, who promised never to leave us, does in and through us who are baptized into the strong name of the Trinity.

“ I have been crucified with Christ,” wrote the great proto-Lutheran,  St Paul, “and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”
Lutherans love that kind of stuff—sends shivers down our spines.
Because we know that it’s always Jesus who gets us into this risky business….and it’s God who is always reforming, reshaping and renewing us in the strong name of the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.


Saturday, May 20, 2017

Gone...But Not Really Gone

Installation of Aaron Suomala Folkerds as Senior Pastor
Lutheran Church of Christ the King, Moorhead
May 21, 2017/Easter 6
John 14:15-21

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

“Gone but not forgotten.”

We’ll hear that phrase and speak those words next week, because it’s that time of the year.  By Federal statute, no less, we set aside the last Monday of May as our “gone but not forgotten” holiday, when we stop to remember those who’ve left this world, especially those who died in service to our country.

“Gone but not forgotten” may be among the most poignant words in the English language.

This brief phrase masks a deeper, darker reality—which is that whenever someone leaves us, it is shockingly easy to forget them, despite our best intentions.

Not, of course, that our loved ones pass completely from our memories, but they no longer occupy our minds or command our hearts.  In that sense, gone too often means forgotten.

But on Memorial Day we will ourselves to do what no longer comes naturally—we will ourselves to remember them, to lay fresh-cut spring flowers on their graves, to ponder the great sacrifice that they made.   For this one day at least--by gum!--they shall be “gone but not forgotten.”

But the day after Memorial Day, along with all the days that follow…those days are another story… all too often “gone” means “forgotten.”

As this season of patriotic remembering plays out…..the church is doing its own brand of remembering during the Great Fifty Days of Easter.

And this remembering, this focused mindfulness of the Church recalling the One who died and rose again, reflects a different understanding of reality.

In the church’s way of remembering Christ the Crucified and Risen One, it’s not so much “gone but not forgotten,” as it is “gone, but not really gone.”

Say what?   What kind of nonsense is that?  How can someone, anyone, even Jesus be “gone, but not really gone?”

As jarring as those words sound, “gone, but not really gone” is the pulsing beat, the arresting rhythm of the Great Fifty Days…and nowhere is that more apparent than in this gospel reading from John 14.

Jesus came to earth.  Jesus was born of Mary.   Jesus walked where we walk. Jesus loved and prayed for and healed and taught his neighbors.   And, in short order, Jesus was cruelly betrayed, wrongly convicted, brutally forced to carry his own cross on his bleeding back. 

In the end, Jesus died.

And then three days later Jesus was raised again…

….and then over the course of forty days, Jesus showed himself to his followers, often and compellingly enough to convince them that with him, with Jesus, death’s stranglehold had been broken.

And then, just when his followers were starting to get the hang of it, this same Risen Lord Jesus Christ was taken from them once more, ascended into heaven, returned to his Father, gone for good it seemed…

….gone, but not really gone!  

Jesus was gone, but not really gone.    The Resurrected One made wondrous provision for us, to deal with his physical absence from us:  “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.” (John 14:16-17)

Jesus was leaving this earth, he was about to be gone—but not really gone.

How can that be?

Here’s how:  Jesus promised “another Advocate” to come to us and be with us forever:  the Spirit of Truth would “succeed” Jesus in keeping faith alive and hope strong.

Jesus promised another Advocate, because we already had our first Advocate, Jesus himself in the flesh.

An advocate, you see, is someone who comes alongside us to make a case or plead a cause.

Jesus, the original Advocate, pled our cause before God our heavenly Father.    Jesus spoke out for us most clearly, most distinctly, in the final days of his life….when he gave us a Meal we’re still eating, bread for his body, wine for his blood.

On the Cross Jesus advocated for us most convincingly when he cried out:   “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”   Jesus in his dying breath advocated for us, made the perfect case for us, sinners all:  “Father forgive them.”

If Jesus on the Cross pleaded perfectly for us with our Creator-God, he promised to send “another Advocate,” the Holy Spirit who doesn’t so much plead for us, as he pleads with us.

The Holy Spirit advocates for the risen Lord Jesus Christ, with every breath we take.   The Spirit presses God’s cause upon us every day, giving us reasons to believe, reasons to hope, reasons to stake our lives on Christ the Crucified and Risen One who may be gone (in the way he first lived among us)-- gone, but not really gone.  Jesus continues to have us and hold us and send us into the world that is becoming his perfect Kingdom.

So the living Lord Jesus no longer occupies the body he received from his mother Mary, he is no longer bound to “to distant years in Palestine” as hymnwriter Brian Wren puts it (ELW #389, stanza 2).
Jesus is gone from all that, but he’s not really gone.

In a far fuller, richer sense, Jesus--in the power of his resurrection--is more alive now than ever before!

And Jesus is alive, not because our feeble memories will him to be alive.  Jesus’ resurrection life isn’t about us whistling in the dark, engaging in wishful thinking….

No, Jesus is alive still, because that other Advocate, the Spirit of truth, the Lord and Giver of Life—breathes upon us, kindles within us the unquenchable fire of faith…and never allows that flame to die out.

“Gone but not forgotten” reflects our responsibility, our striving, our work….

But with Jesus everything is made new:  with Jesus, it’s not so much “gone but not forgotten” as it is “gone, but not really gone.”

And you have Jesus’ own Word on that. 

You have the down payment of the Holy Spirit, the urgent, nudging, enlivening testimony of that other Advocate who ceaselessly makes God’s case before us, wooing and cajoling and winning us over, freeing us to confess from our hearts:  “I believe.   Help my unbelief”

So it is the Spirit of Truth who tirelessly reminds us that Jesus is Risen from the grave, nevermore to die.

But there is even more.   

In v. 19 of our gospel lesson Jesus ups the ante with this promise:  “because I live, you also will live.”

Phew!  What a relief that is—to know that we will somehow “survive” death….that in some unimaginable way we partake of Jesus’ own unending life.

But Jesus utters this promise not simply to set our hearts at ease, to beat back our fear of death.

No.  Jesus promises to share his own unending resurrected life with us so that we will be good for something, even as we await and pine for God’s New Day.

“Because I live, you also will live,” Jesus declares to us, and that miraculous life of Christ in us testifies to us and everyone else that Jesus is gone, but not really gone.

Jesus shares his unending life with us so that we will be living specimens, walking talking testimonies who constantly bear witness that Jesus is gone, but not really gone.

Our whole life as the Body of Christ, is God’s best proof that Jesus didn’t vanish into thin air…but has chosen to continue his rescuing, reviving, death-defying, future opening work.

So because Jesus lives in us we can make all sorts of audacious promises in his name.

We can look each other right in the eyes and say things like:
“I announce to you the entire forgiveness of all your sins.”
“I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit.”
“Take and eat, this is the body…this is the blood of Christ.”
“Because Jesus lives, you will live also!”

Pastor Aaron, I suspect that most of the time the last thing you want to be is someone else’s “mouthpiece.”

But there’s one exception to that rule of thumb.  There’s at least one sense in which you and every other pastor are a mouthpiece for the only voice we need to hear in life and in death.

Jesus, who is alive—sure as shooting—has called you here, as the chief shepherd of this flock, to utter audacious promises that only he can keep.  Just remember that everything you’re called to do here as senior pastor of this congregation flows from that absolutely crucial role—of being a called and “dedicated” mouthpiece for Christ the Crucified and Risen One.

And wow--isn’t that grand?

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.