Monday, October 31, 2016

No, doctrine does not save, but why do we need to know it?


For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.  Romans 3:28

TODAY we encounter some of the most thrilling Scripture readings of the church year; words from God that will "...strengthen our weak hands and make our feeble knees strong.." (Is. 35)

In Psalm 46, the Psalm of the Lutheran Reformation, we are assured that though the mountains should crumble and fall into the sea; though all that is stable and dependable should be swallowed up by all that is insecure and hostile, that even then we can be calm.  Even then we can rest.  Even then we can be at ease because the Lord of hosts is with us, because the God of Jacob, the God of Promise, the God who gave His one and only Son to suffer sin's penalty for us, is our refuge, our strength, and very present help in trouble!

In today's second reading from Revelation we learn that the gospel of our salvation is not a temporal or limited one, but an eternal one instead; a gospel that has no beginning and no end.  It is the gospel that existed in the  mind of God before the foundation of the world, and that made its first appearance on earth as the "tree of life in the Garden;"  one that will continue to be preached and believed until the end of the age, and the gospel that can never be extinguished however wicked, clever or determined its enemies might happen to be.

As the gospel had no beginning, neither does it have an end, but will still be active in heaven for all eternity.  The tender mercy of God that saved us from all our enemies will fill us with gladness beyond telling, and keep us in perfect peace as we serve our dear Lord in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness.

In today's Gospel reading we hear these immortal words of our Lord Jesus Christ, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and  you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."  Jesus Himself is that Word.  Jesus Himself is that truth; not Jesus as a notion or as a five-letter word, but Jesus crowned with thorns, covered with stripes and pierced with nail and spear; the Son of God and Son of man who was handed over for our trespasses and raised again for our justification.  He is the truth and God's word of absolution to every sinner for every sin.  On that you can rely.  In that you can place your full faith and trust, now and at the hour of death, but lest our joy be anything less than complete on this Reformation Sunday, let us especially learn today's Epistle lesson:  "For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law."  This, dear Christians, is the chief doctrine of the holy catholic and apostolic faith; the teaching by which the church stands or falls, and the principle that energizes every other teaching, ethic, ritual or practice that we hold so dear.

This teaching is one that every Christian should know, believe, understand and be thoroughly conversant in, not because entrance into heaven is gained by doctrinal examination, but so that we might comfort ourselves with it when sin and death and sorrow overwhelm us: and so that we can correct even the church as often as she might stray from it.

There is no harder doctrine to believe, teach, confess or retain than this one because it is at terrible odds with human reason.  Though, on the one hand, we wish we could have everything in life for free, we know that this is not the case.  We know that life is unrelenting.  We know that if you want to have anything in this world, you have to pay the price.  You have to expend labor, energy, time, skill and mental energy or you will starve to death penniless on the street, because contrary to the dreamers and schemers of this world, there "ain't" no such thing as  a free lunch.  Whatsoever a man sows that also shall he reap, and if any should not work neither should he eat.

Those are the heartless realities of life in this world, but in God's economy everything is different.  Salvation is a gift, one bought and paid for by our Lord's suffering, death and resurrection; one that is given to otherwise lost and condemned violators without money and without cost.  There is no currency that can purchase the gift of heaven for you, but one that is made ours by faith and by faith alone.  Therefore St. Paul spends a great deal of time teaching us his inspired truth that: a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.  Neither should you consider faith a good work, for it is not.  Instead it is the Spirit's  gift by which we receive the inheritance.

Yes, "a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law."  That is St. Paul's conclusion, so everything we believe, teach, confess and practice proceeds from this pivotal truth.  The baptism you receive, you receive by faith, whether newborn babe or wizened adult.  No one can obtain the gifts that baptism gives without the faith that the Holy Spirit gives and supplies.  It is faith that moves us to worship, to gladly hear and learn God's word, to celebrate the Blessed Sacrament, believing what seems impossible:  that this bread and this cup are the body and blood of Christ that grant us the remission of sins, life, salvation and intimate unity with Christ our heavenly Bridegroom.  Finally it is by faith that we take up our cross each day and follow Jesus in a life of self-denial, service to God and the selfless  kindness of our neighbor, for works are the fruit and evidence of faith and  faith without  works is dead.

Therefore we conclude, along with St. Paul on the Reformation Sunday, that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the law.  Praise God from whom all blessings flow.  Amen.

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Lord takes care of body and soul


THE wages of sin is death, but a slow and agonizing one; one marked by illness, weakness, pain, agony, sorrow, struggle, uncertainty, sleepless nights and days troubled by medical bills, endless visits to doctors, pharmacies and therapists, and round after round with insurance company call centers, so it should come as no surprise to us that Jesus the Great Physician of body and soul should choose St. Luke, who was a medical doctor to be an evangelist and physician of the soul.

This gives us something to think about because many Christians think that their faith affects nothing more than their soul.  They think, like the Scribes and Pharisees, that Jesus can say "your sins be forgiven you" all day long, but that he is either unwilling or unable in this modern age to say as He did to the paralytic man, "rise up and walk."

Hear the Word of the Lord!  When you are sick you should pray!  When you are ill you should cry out to God to make you well.  You should call for the pastor, as St. James admonishes, to anoint you with oil, pray for your wellbeing, and forgive you all your sins, because illness is not some strange visitor from another planet, but the just deserts of our trespasses, so you should ask no one less than the Great Physician to ease your  pain, relieve your burden, forgive your sins and to remove the "dis" from your dis-ease, not apart from the established means of the medical arts, but through them.  Yet if they are unable to help you, then in spite of them.  For it is St. Luke the medical doctor who records the account of the woman who suffered for 12 years with a disease of the blood, whom doctors could not cure, and on which she had spent all of her money.  Every effort was in vain until she touched the hem of the Great Physician's garment, then she was made instantly well.

Yes, use the medical arts if you can, but please know that sin is more deadly a disease than the profession will ever be equipped to handle.  While it can do much, it has no cure for most ailments, and certainly none for death which comes to us all due to our sins.  Neither can  we be sure today if medicine is the noble art and science it once was, or if it is a cold and heartless industry, yet in either case trust in the Great Physician of body and soul for all that you want and for all that you need.

Jesus doesn't only redeem the body, but He heals the soul as well.  St. Luke gives the entire account of our salvation in his sacred gospel.  He commits it to writing by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit so that it will give hope to sinners until Jesus makes all things new by His glorious appearing.

In his divine document, Luke records the wonders that God wrought "for us men and for our salvation."  Not only records, but records faithfully and accurately, and to such a degree that even modern biblical scholars who love to bash the scriptures; who delight in showing people that the Bible is nothing special; even these lost souls bow to St. Luke as an accurate and brilliant historian, who researched, investigated, studied, and who did all his homework before he dared to write his gospel on parchment.

That is the kind of man that our saint was, and the kind of man we all should strive to be.  He wasn't only faithful to his Lord, but he was loyal to his fellow man as well.  St. Paul notes in his letter to Timothy that "only Luke is with me."  (2 Tim. 4:11)  After everyone else deserted him, only Luke stayed close by his side as he suffered his many trials; as he endured imprisonments, floggings and privation for the sake of the gospel, and we would not be wrong if we imagined that St. Luke was St. Paul's personal physician; the one who tended to him, and who treated the bruised, bloodied and battered body that suffered from so much abuse, illness and deprivation.

It is this same faithful Luke who accurately records what we call the Christmas Story.  He begins with the miraculous birth of St. John the Baptist who was born to introduce the world to its Savior, and it is in Luke's gospel that we meet hopeful Elizabeth, priestly Zechariah, the Blessed Virgin Mary, devout Anna and ever-patient Simeon, and it is their prayers recorded in St. Luke's gospel, the Magnificat and Benedictus, that the church still sings today, and still prays with all vim, vigor and faith.

It is in the famous second chapter of St. Luke's gospel where we read the immortal and awe-inspiring Christmas story; the nativity of Jesus whose name means Savior, who came to offer His sacred life as the Evening Sacrifice that remits all of our sins and makes us holy before God.

It is in the third chapter that we read our Lord's genealogy going all the way back to Adam:  teaching us that Jesus who is "perfect God and Perfect Man" shares human DNA, so that by His holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death we should share His divinity and be reconciled to our waiting Father, so that as our Lord gloriously rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, we too should live a new life.

That is the power of this holy Christian faith into which we are baptized, that through Christ who bore our burden on the cross we, too, will attain to the resurrection of the dead, and that the same Jesus, revealed in St. Luke's gospel is with us now and forever, for you can be certain that it is His voice that warms our hearts when the Scriptures are opened to us each Sunday; His absolution and benediction we gladly receive and His body and blood that we take into our own in the HOLIEST COMMUNION  of all:  for with God, nothing shall be impossible (Luke 1:37)  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Who gives Jesus His authority?


EVER since the television set invaded the living room - and nearly every other room as well - we have become a society of spectators.  It's so much easier that way.  Sate your curiosity, natural or otherwise, hear the viewpoints, regard all the problems from a safe distance.  We never have to get involved.  Injustice and oppression force their way in, calamity and catastrophe leave negative  images, but one little button on the remote and they all go away,  so we mustn't judge the religious leaders in the old Jerusalem very harshly.  They wanted to have that luxury.  The Messiah was standing in the their midst, saying things that were making them very uncomfortable.  They were looking for a remote that would turn Him off, take them into a dream where they would not have to confront His claims.  From the safety of the Temple they planned to evaluate Jesus, but He would have none of that.  He was fulfilling prophecies where they had to notice Him.  The same Messiah addressed His claims to us.  We are just as involved as the religious leaders.  Staying away from church does not make Jesus go away.

The leaders asked Jesus to state how He claimed such authority.  He turned the question onto them by asking about John the Baptist.  This was not happening in a corner.  Jesus was talking right out in front of everybody, not just the leaders, but the people as well.  That was a first step.  If the elders answered Him properly, Jesus could keep digging in that spot, asking about all the prophets who were persecuted in Jerusalem, but they would not give Him a straight answer, so Jesus refused to play their games.  Instead He told the parable about the tenant farmers who killed the landlord's servants, then even killed his son.  They knew right away what Jesus meant, but there was no way they could arrest Him in front of everybody.  They knew what He meant, too.

At first glance we might wonder why the question of authority even came up.  Remember, by the time this took place, Jesus was famous.  The story we heard in today's Gospel took place about two years earlier in Capernaum.  Already then He had friction with the scribes.  He told the sick man that his sins were forgiven, and the religious started grumbling about it.  They thought He was blaspheming.  The question would not go away.  For two years it just grew bigger and bigger, so they called Jesus to account for going beyond what Moses taught.  We must not feel superior to those people.  After all, we know about the resurrection, while they lived before it happened.  Yes, Moses and the Prophets did indeed predict the things Jesus was doing.  They predicted a New Covenant, based on the forgiveness of sins.  That was something Jesus was doing every day, but dying and rising again were still in the future.  For the moment He looked like an ordinary man.  The religious leaders, whether priests, elders, or scribes, had certain notions about what was appropriate.  Forgiving sinners - even an adulteress, eating with tax collectors, healing on the Sabbath, even telling stories where Samaritans were the good guys - no Messiah would not do anything like that.

Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus' authority at work.  He commanded the wind and the sea; He had the demons begging; when He chased out the money-changers, who were trying to make Israelite worship more user-friendly, they stayed out.  Shortly before Palm Sunday, everybody heard about Lazarus.  That was just over the hill from the Temple.  News about dead people being raised tends to get around.  He had authority, but how?  There is only one right answer.  It was the authority of the cross, the sacrifice by which the Lamb emancipated the slaves, the authority of His blood.  He was committing Himself to that when He forgave the paralytic in Capernaum, when He healed the sick and the lame, when He cast out the representatives of hell.  What He said to Peter about the keys of the kingdom was nothing less than authority to apply His blood to individual sinners.  He would shed it, so He could give Peter authority to use it.  The authority of the Church is our Lord's gift.  It is the true treasure of the Church, the blessed treasure of the kingdom of God.  Everyone has sinned; everyone needs that grace.

Perhaps we would rather not be involved, but that is not our call.  We may want to think about God the way we think about groceries, try this one and that one, compare costs.  We wish we could finger the remote and surf through all the faiths.  Like the religious leaders in the New Testament, we want to shop for a Messiah, to evaluate the Lord.  We want to make a deal - Jesus can have me on Sunday, the rest of the week is  mine!  He doesn't think so.  In the world to come, do you want to just visit heaven on Sunday?  Jesus looks you in the eye and asks, Do you believe in God who raises the dead?  Really, so that what you say and what you do are on the same page?  He asked those men whether John's Baptism came from heaven.  So what about your baptism?  Did men make all this up?  If so, why did you come here?  To be religious?  The Word did not become flesh to make you religious, but if you want your sins forgiven, if you want to be rescued from death and the devil, then Jesus is the right Person.  You cannot have it both ways.  This forgiveness is yours, but then you are part of Christ's kingdom.  Without Him, you can do nothing, but as you stand beside the true Messiah of Israel, you can be part of the greatest enterprise of all time.  When I say a "part," that excludes being a spectator.  You are a participant.  When Jesus returns there will be no spectators, only the conquerors and the conquered.

Here in God's house, our liturgy will not let us be mere spectators.  As we come to receive the body and blood of our Lord, we say with Him Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.  The keys of the kingdom are not for spectators.  That's how the Messiah rules in our midst.  His kingdom is founded on forgiveness.  We must never think in our hearts, "forgive us as we watch others forgive..."  We can't hold that remote.  We are involved.  God is our Father.  Jesus is our  Savior.  His Church is our church.

We could never choose this for ourselves.  Jesus became involved with us at a time when we had no choice.  He had every right to destroy us from the safe distance of heaven, but He plunged Himself down into our world, paid the price of our forgiveness, and died our death which would not hold Him, because He was not a sinner.  Soon we will have our share of the Sacrificial Victim, becoming partners with His mercy, getting involved to the point where we can use our authority to forgive sins, our keys of the kingdom.  Jesus does not call us to sit on the sidelines.  He defeated our enemies, and paid our ransom.  With Him there is no limit to what we can do.  AMEN

~  Rev. Lloyd Gross