Monday, July 31, 2017

In Light of Certain Human Manipulations of the Word to Justify Church Growth Programs

ONLY GOD CAN MAKE A CHURCH


Visitors who attend worship services often complain about feeling left out.  Everybody seems to have a common agenda, but there is something esoteric about it.  They wonder why the others who have come don't extend to them a formal greeting.  Don't they know we're visitors?  The answer is probably not.  You are the victim of the illusion that everybody else "belongs" here.  The person sitting next to you is most likely to have been a member here for less than ten years, and a good chance for less than five.  They don't know who is new because they don't know who is old.  Of course that's no reason not to greet them.  Everyone has an interesting story, one you will never learn unless you introduce yourself.  There's nothing to be afraid of. It might even prod that person into welcoming somebody else next time.

However, the church is not a social club.  We are interested in our fellow members, but not for social reasons.  We are all part of a body.  The worship service is not about the body, it is about the Head. That is why we focus our attention on the chancel area.  Here the Head of the Church meets us through the means of grace.  Is that a new term to you?  Well, the means of grace are the ductwork of the Holy Spirit to bring new life to us; they consist of God's Word and the Sacraments He instituted.  As we look forward we can see three chief stations: the altar, the font, and the pulpit.  Those are the instruments we use to access the Word and Sacraments. We are the members, so we look forward to the Head, Jesus Christ.  Especially, we are here to remember His Incarnation, and the great salvation He brought to us by becoming man.  We face the east because the rising sun is a symbol of the Second Coming of Jesus.  He promised to return, so we look for Him as the watchers look for the dawn.  He will end the night of sin and evil, and begin the morning of eternal life.  Our particular church building is fortunate so that it points to the physical east.  If we were across the street we would call the west end the east end because that's the way we would face.  We don't sit around at tables looking at one another because we aren't here to see one another.  We are here to see the Lord.   Here we receive what we can find nowhere else.  Men can no more make the church than they can make the world.  Only God can make a Church.

Nor do we come to look at the pastor.  It is true that the pastor has a very visible role in this process of spiritual feeding, but we no more come here to see the pastor than we go to a restaurant to see the waiter.  We might stay away because of an obnoxious pastor, or we may be very comfortable with a pastor we're used to, but this is not the pastor's church, this is Christ's Church.  We come before the altar because we need Jesus.  Remember, we come here to get what we can get nowhere else.  We do not get it from the other members. Although the pastor might place it in front of us, it isn't his to give.  Jesus is meeting us through the means of grace.  We come here for the Word and Sacraments that are gifts of our Savior.  We expect to receive forgiveness, life, and salvation.  The pastor cannot make the church.  Only God can make a Church.

Never say that you do not have time for worship!  Some people decide whether or not to attend divine service the same way they decide whether to go to a seminar or a lecture.  They are treating divine things as if they were merely human.  A seminar or a lecture are merely one person's notes.  What we have here is holy.  The Supper of Christ is a divine drama upon which the angels gaze in reverent awe.  Is that what we cannot find time for?  Whatever light, whatever love may reach people through this society, or any other society, is borrowed from Holy Mother Church.  The Golden Rule is the doctrine of Jesus.  Protection of life, liberty and property are simply ways of implementing the Ten Commandments.  Secular attempts at institutionalizing good - such as the famous "human rights" we hear so much about today - are like the moon reflecting the light of the sun, which is a pale imitation, in fact, a very flawed imitation.  When secular humanists try to establish human rights without God, that is like trying to get the moon to shine without the sun.  It will come to naught because it will not be blessed.  Society cannot make a church.  Only God can make a Church, and He has.  His truth, His compassion, and the victory of His death and resurrection are all in our midst as we gather here.  It is true that the actual sacrifice of Jesus took place many years ago, but the atonement He made is for keeps.  As we look at the altar we can practically hear St. John the Baptist saying, Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  We can also reason, then, that the Lamb has redeemed us as individuals, and cleansed us in the Fountain of Life.  He might not make us nice, but He does make us holy.

Now while we might not come here to look at one another, still we're glad that everybody came.  We are also like the moon, only we know it.  That bright love beams down on us.  We cannot help but reflect it.  We come to worship the Head, but we do it together as a group, rejoicing in the members as well.  We reflect His joy by rejoicing in one another, especially in sharing the gifts we have been given for the common good.  We publish a church directory to help members recognize one another.  We publicize birthdays and anniversaries, announce when members or relatives are in the hospital, so that as St. Paul encourages us we rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.  Yes, I know social clubs have something like that, but we go a step further.  We urge our members to admonish one another, to privately warn whoever is straying from the path of godliness, moving away from the light into the darkness.  The pastor is called to do it in public, but everyone does this in private.  We are not to gossip about it, nor to become cold and distant, nor to give anyone the silent treatment, nor worst of all, to send anonymous messages.   Nothing is so cowardly and repulsive as anonymous criticism.  Rather, we must reclaim all the erring in the Savior's name.

In the past few decades a movement has emerged claiming that the point of worship is to make people feel good.  No.  We are here to remember the incarnation of the Son of God, to receive forgiveness of sins, to be warned out of impenitence by the preaching of God's Law, to thirst for the Fountain of Life and then, by the Gospel, to drink from it.  We baptize the convert and his offspring, we give the Body and Blood of Christ to the faithful that they may be satisfied with His grace.  That is why we are here.  We also praise His name, offer our petitions, and are encouraged to live according to the doctrine we believe, but primarily we are to be forgiven and restored.  Feelings can come into it, but we cannot start with them.  We must begin with the human will.  Now interacting with the Law and the Gospel is often very moving.  I would hope that everyone would be moved by the depth of God's love, and cheered by the height of his victory.  Start, however, with the will and the intellect and holiness can grow into the feelings as well.  Do these things in the right order, and we can accomplish them all.  And the right order is first we receive what is good from God, then we reflect His goodness.  AMEN.

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Monday, July 24, 2017

On Baptism and Confirmation

THE LIVING END


Now these things happened to them as an example,but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages is come. 1 Corinthians 10:11

WE have an expression in English, "the living end," that we use to describe the outermost limits of any situation; of reaching the point beyond which there is no where left to go, no  where left to proceed.

The NBA championship in late June (2016), and the victory party in downtown Cleveland attended by a million and half people, was "the living end" for diehard Cleveland sports fans.  People whether they were sports fans or  not, came to celebrate.  They braved the crowds, bought the T-shirts and danced in the streets for this great mark of distinction for our beleaguered city.

This past week (2016)  political junkies who attended the RNC here in Cleveland experienced "the living end" of republican politics.  People came from all over the nation, and all over the world to attend, promote their cause, or just to be part of the experience.  Area residents poured into downtown in record number to feel the glory and behold the spectacle  so that one day they'd be able to tell their grandkids, "I was there."

It's not hard to understand these things, but because we are spiritually dull it is very hard to understand this little phrase that St. Paul writes in his sermon to the Corinthians, "upon whom the end of the ages is come."

When St. Paul wrote these words he was talking about the very things that are occurring   here today.   The Eucharistic Feast that either a person recognizes and loves with his whole  heart and soul and mind and strength; or that he is too dull to understand, so he despises it with equal fervor; and to be neutral to it, is to despise it.

To miss this event is to miss life, salvation, peace, joy, comfort, strength, consolation, courage in the face of death, and the way of escape God provides for every test and every   temptation.  To despise it is to worship yourself, and to befriend the world about you, which means to be at enmity with God.

This Great Feast we celebrate today has many parts to it but they are all ingredients of the one cake, the one prize, the one hope.  Here is the place where we pray, praise and give thanks; the place we confess our sins and receive divine pardon for them, the venue where our cup overflows with God's Word, where we confess our faith with "one voice" and make our gifts and offerings to our God.  Nothing bad ever happens here, but only good!  No one who comes here ever leaves the poorer for it, but always richer than when he came.

This is "the living end;" the place where all the future promises of heaven, the things we firmly believe, and ardent hope are set before us now.  We see them with our eyes, hear them with our ears, feel them in our emotions and taste them with our lips.  Here the "end of the ages, " the future promises of God are brought into the present.  Here the "sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest."  You are those sparrows and swallows.

But there are prerequisites for entering this holy house, and for receiving these staggering gifts; the very things we witnessed a few moments ago.

The first prerequisite is the sacrament of holy baptism.  By it those who are born of the flesh are born anew and begotten from above by the power of the Spirit.  In baptism sinners doomed to wrath and punishment for the "sins of their fathers, " and for their own sins, obtain the full redeeming benefits of the Lord's cross and resurrection.  Their wrongs are remitted.  They are delivered from death and the devil, gain a good conscience before God,   and receive every good and perfect gift from the Father of Lights.  In baptism children of men become children of God.  The old way of life dies and a new and better life commences.  Today Jason commences this new life.

The second prerequisite to partaking in the Eucharistic Feast is the rite of confirmation by which those who believe with their hearts confess the true faith with their lips before the believing assembly.   St. Paul writes, "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved."  Our Lord Jesus Christ also says, "Whoever confesses me before men, I will confess before my Father in heaven.  But whoever denies me before men, I will deny before my Father in heaven."

Today, following a period of dedicated study, four beloved children of God are making that  very confession, even as all of you have, and they will now join the Eucharistic Feast, the Mysteries of god, the Living End.

For this we rejoice with the angels of heaven and give eternal praise and glory to our gracious God and Father.  Let the feast begin.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, July 17, 2017

Put the flesh away while there is still time

THE STORM OF THE LORD


Behold, the storm of the LORD!  Wrath is gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked.  The anger of the LORD will not turn back until He has executed and accomplished the intents o f His heart.  In the latter days you will understand it perfectly.  Jeremiah 23:19-20

THESE are the latter days and we do understand what Jeremiah was telling the church in his day, or at least we should.  He was preaching Christ and Him crucified.  He was speaking of the Lord's death, burial and resurrection on the third day by which our sins are covered if we hold fast to the Gospel, unless we have believed in vain; but in Jeremiah's day, some 600 years before the Lord's birth, the people did not believe or understand what was coming upon them.  Neither were they of a mind to know.

A spirit of deep deception settled over them and they believed a lie, just like people do today.  They believed that they could follow the happy message of the false prophets rather than the true and holy Word of God.  As a result they turned away from the Lord.  They banished religion from their minds.  They despised the ten commandments.  They found plausible ways to dismiss God's claim on their lives, just like we do today.  Rather than devote their lives to His service which is the true vocation of man, they dedicated themselves to sin; to every fleshly pleasure, even as they rejected every duty to live as the redeemed people of God.  If you look at America today you will have a good understanding of Judean life in the 6th century B.C.

Because of their complete disregard of all things true and eternal, they were about to experience "the storm of the Lord."  They were about to lose everything they held dear:  their nation, their temple, their families, their liberty, their hopes and their future; and no one was able to save them.

Their kings fainted with fear at the "whirling tempest' that was about to make landfall.  Their priests and prophets went into hiding; and the people became like sheep without a shepherd as a pack of ravenous Babylonian wolves pounced down upon them with teeth of iron and   claws of brass.

Jeremiah, the only true prophet of the day, tried to warn the church against playing fast and loose with God.  He preached his message to anyone who would listen:  to the king, the priests, the false prophets and to the people directly, but no one would listen.  Their sin had lulled them into a deep cultural coma, even as ours does right now and they stood helpless,   even as we do today.

If we give any credence at all to God in 21st century America it is a god of our own choosing: a god who loves puppy dogs, but condones abortion; a god made in our own image and likeness who justifies our twisted values, our frantic pursuit of luxury, ease, self-gratification and of getting something for nothing.  What should be sanctified is now sexualized, monetized, politicized and distorted beyond recognition; marriage, family, church, duty, honor, good order and the like.

Because of this "the storm of the Lord" is come upon both church and state today in the form of poverty, disease, terrorism, discontent, hopelessness, lawlessness, addiction, restless minds and itching flesh that can never be satisfied however many perversions it invents.  We suffer for our sins because we are irreverent, faithless, careless and thoughtless about what is most important, and the anger of the LORD will not turn back until he has executed and   accomplished the intents of His heart.

Yet in this jeremiad, not one, but two great truths are to be found:  First the Law! That   mighty Word from God that crushes our stubborn spirits and fills us with dread so that we   finally fall down in humility and repentance before Him.  Then the Gospel, the mightiest of all doctrines and the only source of comfort, peace, calm and joy to be had.

The Gospel is this:  that the "storm" Jeremiah predicted does not fall upon us but upon the Sacred Head of our Lord Jesus Christ; "who was wounded for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities."  He is our Refuge, our Fortress, our Shield, and our Buckler.  He is the One who"became sin for us, " that we might become "the righteousness of God in Him!"  And so we are!

While God exacted the price from Israel for her sins and while He still disciplines us for ours even now; the true intent of His heart is not the death of the sinner, but the death of His Son on the cross "for us men and for our salvation."  This is life.  This is peace.  This is joy in the face of all sorrow, and courage in the face of all danger.

Our Lord's death on the cross was not a political accident but the supreme expression of God's love for the world.  If you want to know who the true God is and what He is like, then look at Jesus on the cross.  "Mark that miracle of time, God's own sacrifice complete!  It is finished hear Him cry, learn of Jesus Christ to die."  (TLH #159)

These are not mere words for us, Dear Christians, because in baptism we do in fact die with Christ; not only die, but are also raised again.  St. Paul says it like this:  "If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things below.  For you have died (baptism), and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.  Put to death, therefore, what is earthly in you:  sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.  On account of these the wrath of God is coming;"  but not to you O Baptized Believer;  not to sinners whose wrongs are expunged by Him who endured the Storm of the Lord on the cross for us.  "Thy sins be forgiven thee, go in peace."  Amen

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Dead or alive?

OUR DWELLING PLACE


Now if we died along with Christ we believe that we shall live with Him also, knowing that Christ being raised from death will never die again, death no longer having dominion over him.  For in that He died, He died to sin once for all; but in that He lives, He lives to God.  Likewise you also must   consider yourselves to be dead as far as sin in concerned; but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Romans 6:8-11

AS Christians we live with great contradiction.  Our sins are forgiven but we still suffer from them.  The punishment we merit is rescinded but the Lord still disciplines those whom He loves.  We have life in Christ now and forever, but like St. Paul we die daily, and are killed all the day long.  We profess the holy Christian faith.  We speak the language of men and of angels in holy worship; and eat the bread of angels from the Table of Life, but when we leave this sanctuary, this place of safety where true joys are found, sin is crouching at the door, and the Roaring Lion is seeking to devour us.

What are we to think?  Are we God's children or are we not?  Are we new creations in Christ  or are we not?  Will we persevere in faith and make it to heaven when we die, or will we be condemned to outer darkness where there is no forgiveness of sins, but only weeping and gnashing of teeth?

St. Paul answers the question for us in today's Epistle.  He dispels the confusion and the contradiction when he says, "you also must consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord."  That, dear Christians, is how we are to think of ourselves:  dead as far as sin is concerned, but alive to God, to all His glories, blessings and promises, all of which are found in and reside in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What does it mean to be dead to sin?  We take Jesus as our example.  He did not only die FOR sin on the cross; for our sins that is, in order to delete them and set us free, but He also died TO sin.  When our Lord bowed His head and died sin lost all power over Him.  He was now beyond its ambit; beyond its influence; deaf to its siren song.  He could no longer be tempted and will never die again, for the death He died on Calvary's Cross He died once; for all sin, and for all sinners; and is become the source of eternal salvation or us.

Yet the redemption we possess in Christ is not a sham or charade, so St. Paul says, "...let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us conduct ourselves properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the flesh."  This very thing we do when we enter the Pool of Siloam, and the Spirit stirs the waters to dissolve and wash away our every sin.  However, the new life we have in Christ is not only a matter of what we are dead to, but also what we are alive to.  We emerge from the holy waters dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ.

What does it mean to be alive to God?  By definition, a son is one who is inclined   towards his father, who comes close to his breast so that he might hear every word his father has to say.  As Jesus was inclined towards the Father from eternity; as St. John reclined on the breast of Jesus at the first holy communion, even so as sons of God who cry out to Him, "Abba Father who art in heaven," let our ears, our wills, our intellects and all our powers be attuned, not to the voice of the culture about us, but to the word and will of our Father in heaven. 

How is this done?  Not on our own to be sure, but as St. Paul says "in Christ Jesus our Lord."  Always pay attention to the prepositions when hearing Holy Scripture!

When St. Paul uses the term "in Christ" nearly 100 times in his epistles, he is not speaking in metaphors but about our baptism "into Christ" by water and the word.  Then and there we    are clothed "in Him."  We "put on Christ" as St. Paul says.  We are arrayed in Him and His righteousness like a beautiful garment, even as we sang in the sermon hymn a few moments ago, the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, as St. Thomas' doubting hands were plunged into the Lord's open side, even so we are now located safely and soundly from all death and all sin in Christ Jesus our Lord, and nothing is better than that!

Baptism in turn gives us entrance into this holy house which is His house, His temple, the very Kingdom of Heaven. To be in this house, communing with Jesus who is factually present is to be literally, "in Christ" and "in the kingdom of heaven and of God."

"In Him," says St.Paul, "we have obtained an eternal inheritance..."  Ephesians 1:11; "In Him we are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit."  Ephesians 2:22; "In Him we gain the righteousness from God that comes by faith."  Philippians 3:12

"In Christ" we are made one with the immortal, invisible and only wise God who lives in unapproachable light.  "In Christ" we who are by nature sinful and unclean are made spotless and are brought into communion with the mutual love that exists between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit."  All this happens at the font and at the high and holy altar of God where we are not only "in Christ" but find that He, too is "in us" by the host (victim) we eat, and the cup we drink.

Jesus says in John 14:23, "If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him."  These words should not be heard as metaphor, O saints of God, but be taken in their truest sense.  You are now "in" Christ.  He is your dwelling place for all generations.  Amen

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, July 10, 2017

The circuit of a Christian

THE CIRCLE OF LIFE


And they that had eaten were about four thousand in number; and He sent them away.  Mark 8:9

OUR life as Christians is a continuous circuit to and from this holy altar.  We come to eat Living Bread, offer our sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, and then we go home.  Both parts of this journey are important.  (Ps. 121:8)

If you want to eat the Bread of Life, if you want to live forever, then you must come to the altar; not to an imaginary altar that exists in words only, but to the one before your eyes today because it is the mercy seat of God.

In Christian piety the altar represents several different things:

First it represents the manger in which He who "became man" to save His people from their sins, was laid.  A manger was not the cute little cradle that people imagine, but it was a feeding trough for cattle even as the altar is for us.  In this case the various clothes that adorn this Table of Life serve to remind us of the human flesh our Lord assumed and of the swaddling clothes in which the babe of Bethlehem was dressed for our cause.

The altar also points to the empty tomb because the flesh and blood of Jesus that we receive from this heavenly board is not the Lord's dead corpse, but His resurrected, glorified spiritual body.  That is why, just like the bread and fish in today's gospel lesson, it can feed   countless people but never be exhausted.  Now the linens and paraments remind us of the   grave clothes in which the Lord of life was wrapped; but also which He neatly shed by the Spirit who raised Him from the dead.

Yet if there is one reality above all others that the altar symbolizes, it is the blessed cross because the altar is first of all a place of sacrifice.  This is why, though altars can be constructed of various materials, one made of wood preaches the clearest message.  Though it has no tongue, and knows no language, it bespeaks and truly gives us Christ crucified who was sacrificed on the altar of the cross for us in order to delete the sins of the world; your sins, whose wages is nothing but unrest, uncertainty, discontent, endless complications, troubles, sorrow, misery and death now and forever.  "The day you eat of it," the Lord says to adam, "you will surely die," and die he did, as do we because of our relation to him.

However the day you eat this Living Bread, this very glorified flesh and blood of Jesus given to you from this altar, you will live.  The cancer of your sin is put into remission, and health and salvation are yours now and forever.  It is to this very altar that Jesus invites us when he says:  "Behold, I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with Me."

For too long Lutherans, influenced by pietism and sloppy sentiment, have spiritualized this altar away.  Religion then became a matter of the heart that could be practiced anywhere and in any fashion some chose, but you can't receive the Bread of Life at Panera Bread   Company on a Sunday morning; only here.

Notice that in today's Gospel lesson the people went where Jesus was, even if that meant   following Him into the Palestinian desert which was a dangerous place, unfit for human   habitation, and that could not support human life.  There they sat in rapt attention forgetting where they were, and forgetting even to eat, as Jesus fed them with the Bread of Heaven.

In the same way if we want Jesus; if we want to have our sins washed away; if we want to gain heavenly knowledge, wisdom, patience and consolation in the face of our sins, and in the face of intrepid evil then we must meet Jesus here where He wants to be met, at the high and holy altar of God.

Yet this miraculous feeding of the 4,000 doesn't only teach us about the Lord's Feast, but also about holy baptism by which we gain admittance to the altar.

St. Mark notes that the people "dwelled" with Him for three days.  "Dwelled" is the language of God's House, the place where holy God and sinful man meet in peace.  The Lord's audience perceived that when they were in Jesus' presence they were in God's  very   house;   communing with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; even as we are this day, in this place, where our Lord is located by His own Word of Promise:  this is my Body, this is my Blood.

Further, whenever we encounter "three days" in Scripture we should automatically think: the Lord's burial and resurrection; not only the glorious even itself, but also of our own baptism because  St. Paul teaches us that we are entombed with Christ, and raised to new and eternal life with him.

"Great is the baptism you received.  It is a ransom to captives; a remission of offenses; a death of sin; a new-birth of the soul; a garment of light; a holy indissoluble seal; a chariot of heaven; the delight of Paradise; a welcome into the kingdom and gift of adoption!"  (St. Cyril of Jerusalem 354 A.D.)

Also, when Jesus notes that they might faint on the "way" He isn't only talking about their return journey, but the daily walk of Christian faith.

It's easy to faint, and the longer we go without this food the weaker we become.  The more prone to all the temptations of the flesh, The more weary, tired, anxious and hopeless, so Jesus says; come unto me all of you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  That is your invitation to the altar.

Finally St. Mark does not neglect this little fact, that when all was said and done, Jesus sent them home.  We, too, for all the unspeakable blessings we receive here must finally return to our homes, to the vocation God has given each of us, because that is where we live out our Christian identity.  The place where we shed impurity and lawlessness which leads only to more lawlessness, but where we yield our reason, our senses and all our members to   righteousness leading to sanctification.

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God, your baptism, is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras