Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Holy Spirit, the martyrs, the living sacrifices...


But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about Me.  And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me   from   the   beginning.  I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away.  They will put you out of the synagogues.  Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.  And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.  John 15:26ff

THE church is not the dainty affair that many like to portray today.  It is not about designer   coffee, climate-controlled convention centers, or teaching scatty people how to live happy lives.  To the contrary, Jesus warns His disciples that to be His follower is a perilous business, and that the hour was coming, He told them, that anyone who would kill them would be convinced he was offering worship to God.

We don't face such extreme prejudice today, but anyone who studies history knows that many of the Lord's disciples did; and anyone who follows the news knows it is happening today, albeit in far-away places, but the storm clouds are gathering, and the culture that once welcomed what the church had to offer has turned sharply against her; and should the persecution continue on its present trajectory, the day may come when we will face violence as well, so let's take a closer look today at the Lord's prediction, "whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God."  That's how it's translated into English, but in the original Greek it says something a bit different.  That whoever kills you will think that he is offering a sacrifice of worship to God.  In the same way people brought animals to sacrifice before the Lord in the Old Testament to atone for their sins and to offer their worship, now   anyone who killed a disciple of Jesus would think he was doing the same, and what the Lord predicted came true.

All who were present with Him that night, with the exception of St. John according to church tradition, were put to death on account of their witness, and for nearly three centuries thereafter it was a criminal offense to practice the Christian religion anywhere in the vast Roman empire.  During that time many who would not recant their witness courageously accepted grisly death in imitation of the Lord who suffered for them -- and to His magnificent praise and glory -- but they did not consider their sufferings to be political accidents or senseless acts of violence, but rather sacrificial offerings of worship to the Father who loved them and to the Son who suffered and died for them.  These are the men and women we call martyrs, a word which mans "witness," who by their patient suffering and death gave the strongest possible testimony to the Gospel of their Lord.

Today we are the Lord's witnesses, not by spilling our blood, knocking on doors, or adorning our social media with religious symbols, but rather our witness is given here, in God's house, as we gladly hear and learn His Word; as we pray, praise, and celebrate the holy Sacrament which is the pinnacle of Christian witness and Christian worship.  This is what St. Paul is getting at when he writes, "Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship."  He is talking about the very thing we are doing now, for it is here, in God's house, that we present our bodies as living sacrifices, because worship, you see, is not simply a matter of the mind, but it includes our bodies as well.  It includes sitting, standing, bowing, crossing ourselves, folding of hands, modulating of voices,   approaching the altar, closing our eyes and opening our lips to eat the sacrifice of God!  The true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which remits our sins, and gives us joy and gladness instead.

The power source of our witness is the One whom Jesus names the Helper and the Spirit of Truth in today's gospel lesson, only don't think of this Helper as your subordinate, for that would be blasphemy, but as the Lord and Giver of life, and as the church's Counselor, Leader and Director.  As the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, even so Sacred Scripture proceeds from Him.  He chose and inspired its writers to record the Perfect Witness to the salvation that is found in the cross of Jesus alone.

By this same Scripture, He who is the Keeper and Expositor of all truth leads us into all truth.  In the Bible He unveils the mysteries of God to us.  By it He teaches us how to repent, how to believe, how to worship, how to love one another, and how to live sober-minded and self-controlled lives in this present evil age.

Although it is a sticky point with Lutherans, let us recognize today that the Spirit doesn't only use sacred Scripture for His work, but sacred tradition as well.  What is sacred tradition?  First is this divine liturgy we now pray, which is nothing else than the Word of God in use by the people of God for His glory and our salvation!  Traditional also includes the church's creeds and confessions by which we witness to all men, not only what the Bible says, but also what it means.

There is sacred Practice as well which includes matters of liturgical actions, art, architecture, decor and much more; things that while not explicitly commanded by Scripture, are taught    to us by the Spirit of Truth, given to us by Him for the church's edification and for the praise and glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.

By our intelligent and steady use of such things:  sacred Scripture, tradition, and practice, we too prove martyrs; witnesses of Jesus who sprinkled us with baptismal water, cleansed us of our sins, gives us His Spirit, and makes us the people of God.  To Him belong glory and dominion forever and ever.  Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, May 21, 2017

It's true, my prayers are not all that fervent.


THE church is like a bucket with a hole in it.  She is always losing her faith, her religion, her practice, reverence, holiness, vocabulary, self-understanding and her reason for being.

The Spirit, who is the church's power source, is not to blame.  Rather, the unstable element in the mixture is the human one, yet God loves to work this way; to use the weak things of the world, to confound the strong, to use the things that are nothing and to bring to nothing the things that are, but our work today is not to fix the hole for that is impossible as long as God is pleased to allow us a share in His glorious work.  Our job instead is to fill the bucket up again with the sound doctrine and practice of the church of the ages.

Case in point, the 6th Sunday of Easter is known as Rogate Sunday and is dedicated to the theme of prayer.  Surprisingly, Christians today know very little about the subject, but unlike prayer sermons you may have heard, today you will not hear a catechetical review of the subject.  Neither will the pastor urge you to pray more fervently or faithfully.  Nor will you learn any recently discovered technique to make your prayers more effective.  All such   notions ring hollow because they all share the same fatal flaw:  they understand prayer in the abstract terms; as an isolated reality, having a life of its own apart from the church and her worship of the Triune God.

Therefore the first thing we should learn today is that prayer proceeds from this Divine Service; that Christian prayer, which is Christian worship, is something the Spirit accomplishes among us in and through our Lord Jesus Christ who is the church's True Liturgist and the Righteous Man whose prayer availeth much.  Thus when we consider Christian prayer it is corporate, not personal prayer that should be first to come to our minds.  That statement will no doubt shock many people, so let us say it again.  The liturgical prayers of the church, those prayers written down for us in our Service Book and offered before this holy altar come first, and all other prayers Christians offer proceed from here; from this place where Christ our dear Lord is pleased to be with us in gladness and peace.   Now this is not the case for the Protestants by whom we are so strongly influenced; not the case for those "sects and denominations that deny the Gospel by way of the sacraments; and for whom the foundation of prayer is the shrine of their own heart instead of the flesh of Christ that graciously resides on the Christian altar."  The prayer of the Body has primacy.  This is the prayer we offer "with one voice" here in the church's Eucharistic worship which is the church's principle time and place of prayer.

Yes, corporate prayer comes first, but even more specifically the prayers the Bride prays in closest proximity with the Holy Communion she is about to enter with her Holy Groom.  Here perfect glory, laud and honor are rendered to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Here all "sorts and conditions of men" are prayed for well.  This is what Jesus means when He says, "Truly, truly I say to you that whatever you ask the Father in my name, the Father will give to you," but to pray "in Jesus' name" is not accomplished by adding that formula to the end of our petition (though we will never stop doing it.)  Instead, to pray in Jesus' name is a reference to the prayers the church offers in their Divine Service and most   especially those prayed in close proximity with the consecration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Think about it.  When did Jesus give this promise, "whatever you ask the Father in my name, the Father will give to you?"  He gave it on Maundy Thursday as He was instituting the Blessed Sacrament of His body and blood.  That is where He said, "Truly, truly I say to you that whatever you ask the Father in my name, the Father will give to you."  The church has always recognized this fact by consciously embedding the Great Intercessions within the Liturgy of the Sacrament, and more specifically after the Preface on page 24 (The Lutheran Hymnal), and as close to the consecration as possible.

Now the church raises good and true prayers throughout her worship because her worship is prayer and her prayer is worship, but we should learn to think of the Eucharist as the fountainhead of all prayer, even as it is of all mercy!

Once we clearly understand these things and are fully convinced that the Christian altar, not the Christian heart is the wellspring of all prayer, then we can safely speak of all the other petitions a Christian prays which too are worship and which are an extension of the prayer that occurs at this altar, so let us pray; first before the altar, but "at all times and in all places" as well:  in the home, in the world and wherever the Golden Sun of Christ's Love is needed to dispel the devil's wicked works and wicked ways.  Only let us be careful not to think of prayer as something having a life of its own apart from the church's prayer offered here before your very eyes, for the prayers we pray "out there" and "in here" (i.e. the heart) are nothing other than continuations of the prayers offered at this altar; that is prayer offered in Jesus' name.  Neither let us ever think of prayer as an individual enterprise, for no Christian ever prays alone, but always in concert with his Lord and in chorus with the whole church of heaven and hearth.  This is the meaning of the communion of saints we confess in the creed.

Let us especially caution on this Rogate Sunday against understanding prayer as an   adversarial relationship, one in which we must enlist "prayer warriors" and "prayer chains" or hold "national days of prayer" to over-power our gracious God till He raise the white flag   and surrender to us.  These are unnecessary, "for," as Jesus says, "the Father Himself loves you."

Above all let us learn today that to pray in the  name of Jesus is to pray before this holy altar, where Jesus is factually present and where He graciously assents to pardon our sins, hear our prayers, and fill us with every comfort, every consolation, and all joy and peace until we, too, return to the Father from whom we came.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, May 14, 2017

What does it mean that Jesus "gave up the Ghost?"


Isaiah 12:1-6
James 1:16-21
John 16:5-15

For He will not speak on His own behalf, but will speak whatever He hears, and will announce the things to come.  John 16:14

IT is not without cause that St. John the Evangelist, the author of our Gospel, is also known at St. John the Divine.  Neither is it a random accident that the three statues that adorned our altar on West 43rd Street, and will again beautify it here, are of the Lord with St. Matthew to His left, and St. John to His right.  The reason being that St. Matthew best discloses the Lord's humanity, while St. John unveils His divinity for us.  We perceive it throughout this fourth gospel, but especially in these latter Eucharistic chapters; ones that seem more mysterious than the rest, and that give the impression of shedding space and time, connecting earth to heaven and man to God, but to comprehend them is slow going.  You cannot surf St. John like you do the internet, or give it scant attention like skimming a string of tweets at a red light.  We must be patient.

What does the Lord mean when He says that the Spirit, "will not speak on His own behalf, but will speak whatever he hears," or for that fact, when the Lord says of Himself, "I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me?"

Here we learn the existence of a Divine Conversation.  Here we discern the mutual love and blessed interactions of the person of the Holy Trinity.  Here we get a passing glance of what goes on inside of God, and it is a thrilling thought, but also like trying to stare at the sun!  It's not something a person can do for very long, so for now we must be content simply to know that the sun shines, to soak up its benefits, and to bask in the light of its glory.

Yet that doesn't mean we are clueless either, because Jesus is not just the Son of God, but also the Word of God, and that is not a figure of speech!

As your own words reside within you, even so Jesus is the eternal word that resides within the Father from eternity.  This is what He means when He says, "I am in the Father,"  and St. John is quick to inform us that while no one has ever seen God, the only Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known to us, not just as intellectual knowledge.  Yes, that is part of it, but the Christian religion is more than notions, doctrines and ideas.  It is the factual forgiveness of sins.  It is life and salvation, calm and consolation, peace and joy, gained for us by our Lord's sacrificial death on the cross, yet it is more besides, because Jesus didn't only win victory over our sins for us, and over the dead works we are so  terribly  addicted to, but He also imparts and distributes the blessings of salvation to us.  He does it here and He is doing it now.  Those are the Good and Perfect gifts that St. James references in his Epistle, that come down from the Father of Lights, who of His own will gave us new birth by Jesus, Word of Truth.

You see, the Divine Service is the place where we are made privy to the Divine Conversation.  Here the Word of God spoken in eternity, and from all eternity is heard by man, seen by man, believed by man, followed by man, experienced by man.  We are those men.  For what else is Christian worship than a divine Conversation between God and humanity using the  language of God.  Here God speaks, and we like little children learning how to talk, take in His words until we can repeat them for ourselves and learn what they mean, so that God's Word becomes our word, our language, the very breath that we breathe.

When the Lord gave His Word to Ezekiel, He commanded the prophet:  "Eat this scroll, and go speak to the house of Israel."  "So I opened my mouth,"  says Ezekiel, "and He gave me this scroll to eat.  And He said to me, "Son of man feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it."  Then I ate it and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth.  And He said to me, "Son of man, go to the House of Israel and speak with my words to them.""

What the church did in #zekiel's day 2,600 years ago, it still does today.  It gives voice to God's words and invites all who long for divine consolation in the face of insurmountable evil to join this Divine Conversation.

Yet we don't only hear God's word in this house, but like Ezekiel we can eat it too; not in the form of a scroll, but under the forms of bread and wine; not the corpse of Jesus dead on the cross, but His resurrected glorified and all-powerful body; which in turn gives power, glory and indestructible life to us and there is nothing better than that!

As part of His last will and testament made on the night in which He was handed over for our transgressions, the Lord wants us to know that it is the Helper, God's own Spirit, who informs, leads and guides the church into all truth.  That night the disciples were convinced that there was nothing better than having Jesus with them, but the Lord tells them differently.  "It is to your advantage that I go away,"  He says, "for if I do not go the Helper will not come to you," so Jesus went away.  He went where no man could to do what no man can.  He went to the cross where the Word Made Flesh suffered the full force of our sins and our judgment in order to render sinners righteous by faith.  We are those sinners so   rendered.  He went away beyond death, beyond the grave and returned to the Father from which He came, but He did not leave us orphans.  On the contrary, as He bowed His head in death, St. John reports that He "handed over the Spirit," and He is the one who, by holy baptism, makes us participants in this Divine Conversation;  one that will continues into the ages of ages.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Who are "those in error?"


Almighty God, you show those in error the light of Your truth so that they may return to the way of righteousness.  Grant faithfulness to all who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ's church that they may avoid whatever is contrary to their confession and follow all such things as are pleasing to you.

THIS morning let us delve more deeply into today's collect because it has so much to say to us.  In it we ask our God to "show those in error the light of His truth," but who exactly are we talking about?

The obvious answer is the entire unbelieving world, because contrary to human dogma, people are not "basically good."  The verdict of Scripture is quite the opposite; that like so many crack-babies, people are born into the addiction of their parents, born addicted to sin, to devotion to rebellion, and enmity with their Creator, and though we may come into this world in perfect bodily health, spiritually speaking we entire it blind, deaf, mute and lame.  Every inclination of the heart of man is only evil all the time.  (Gen. 6:5)  We have no natural or inborn love or trust for the Almighty, but on the contrary are born rebels and the only god we truly serve is our own bellies.  That is the spiritual condition of every person born into the world.

Yet it is for this very reason that God gave His one and only Son to be our Savior.  Jesus did not come to "fix" us, but to save us.  He who is Perfect God, became Perfect Man; who by His life, death and death-defying resurrection saved and redeemed humanity from its fatal flaw.  He is the True Light that enlightens every man that comes into the world.  

It is also for this very reason that God also provided holy baptism, so that by means of it we might gain access into this grace in which we now stand, so that we might be born a second time, born from above with God as our Father and Jesus as our Brother.

For this reason, because of the ongoing sins of the flesh, He also gives holy absolution, so that those who confess their sins will learn that God is faithful and just, forgives our sins, and continually cleanses us from all unrighteousness.

For this reason He also provides holy worship, holy communion and holy prayer so that even men who are made of dust and will return to dust can share now the immortal life God grants us in Christ.

Who else do we mean when we pray for those "in error?"  We also here pray for those who have given up their first love and have returned to the broad and easy road.  It happens, but we also know that Jesus relentlessly searches for his lost sheep.  He often recovers them by allowing all manner of trouble to plague their lives until they exhaust every earthly prop and can find not peace or rest, and there is only one way left to look:  UP, so we should never grieve as those who have no hope when we think of our fallen angels, for He who began a good work in all He has called will bring it to completion on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He is faithful.  He will do it.

Who else do we pray for when we speak of those "in error?"  We also mean those who are weak in their faith, tempted and torn each hour, assaulted by the devil and filled with anxiety, conflict, and doubt.  That is to say, we pray for ourselves, that we might gain strength, remain faithful, love the beauty of holiness, and overcome all temptation to believe or act contrary to our confession of faith.

We pray that God would grant faithfulness to  all of the above:  to the blind world, that it might come to faith by the light of the glorious gospel; for those who have fallen by the way that they might be restored; and for ourselves that we should not engage in self-righteousness, because remember, it is the sinful tax collector who went down to his house justified in the parable, and not the self-righteous Pharisee.  You are not better than the person you disparage:  the blind heathen, the fallen angel or any other person.  Indeed to think any other way is to elevate oneself over Christ who alone makes men righteous by His blood.,  There is nothing worse than that, but when we pray such prayers we should understand that we are not praying alone.  No Christian ever prays alone.  First and foremost the Holy Spirit carries the church's prayer to the Father and translates our very awkward and stumbling hopes into ones that are perfect in every way.  As if this were not enough, we know that Jesus is seated in glory at the right hand of the Father and is always interceding for His church.  You are that church.  Neither is that all, because the whole church of heaven and earth joins the chorus as well.  This is what we mean by "the communion of saints."

How does this prayer get answered?  How do people "return to the way of righteousness," remain faithful to the church's confession, and act in accordance with it?   This is the "business" the church conducts every Sunday as she prays for God to deliver her from evil, give her His Holy Spirit and every good and perfect gift from above.

Now we all know that what happens in Mexico may stay in Mexico, but what happens here does not.  Instead the grace here received goes into the world as this "noble army of men and boys, matron and maid." (TLH #452)  Take to heart what St. Peter says in today's epistle lesson, "Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul; and to keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation."

This is who we pray for then:  the blind world, the fallen that they might be restored to the joy of salvation, and for ourselves lest we too should fall; and this glorious prayer is answered in this holy house.  God be praised.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras