Sermon, Easter VII, Sunday, May 17, 2015
GRACE, MERCY, AND PEACE are Yours this day from God our Father, through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. AMEN.
The text for us to consider this day is from the high-priestly prayer of Jesus recorded for us in the Gospel according to St. John, where we hear Jesus speaking to His Father to keep and preserve His disciples and the members of His Church saying, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.”
In the NAME of Jesus. AMEN.
There is a great temptation that we Christians fall into that causes no end of worry and anxiety for us. It is especially prevalent in our American context where we are “do-it-yourself” people who pick ourselves up by our boot-straps and see our destiny in our own hands. It’s a temptation that afflicts me as your pastor and it afflicts the leadership of this congregation, and I know from talking with many of you, it’s a temptation into which you fall as well.
This temptation is fed by worldly wisdom and worldly thinking that we read in the paper and news magazines, we see on TV, and even sense as we, ourselves, gather together around God’s Word and His sacrament.
From a worldly way of thinking, we are tempted to believe that the Church is dying. That Christianity is irrelevant, out moded, and out of touch with contemporary society. We are tempted to look around and see fewer in the pew than we may have seen in the past, and believe that something is dreadfully wrong and we must get busy to do something about it. We anguish and lament that so many who have been baptized and taught the faith have seemingly turned their backs on what God has done for them and returned to a worldly existence.
And then along comes Jesus, praying to His Father, to show us just how wrong-headed we are about all of it.
In this prayer of Jesus, we clearly see both our utter helplessness and the hopeless cause of the Church if it weren’t for God’s work in making us His own and the ongoing and continual work of God to keep and preserve us in this world for Himself.
It is, in fact, that simple. Jesus in this passage of Scripture as He prays to the Father lays out all we need in order to know and understand the days in which we live – He prays so that we would believe and know that in the midst of all that we see and experience, we have nothing to fear.
Jesus says, “For their sake I consecrate myself.” Jesus set Himself apart – consecrated Himself for the work of salvation. He came into this world and by the Cross overcame sin death and the devil for us. Suffering in our place, He frees us from our bondage to sin and death and because He lives and reigns, ascended on High, we truly have nothing to fear.
And because He desires to give help and rescue to all, Jesus prays, “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.”
Jesus prays this because He knows how dangerous the world is for those who have His Word. Each of the Apostles for whom Jesus is praying these words would be persecuted for their faith – nearly all of them would lose their life to martyrdom. The only exception would be St. John himself. Though he would be persecuted and tortured for his faith – though his tormenters intended his death at one point by boiling him in oil – God preserved his life so that he dies a natural death.
And this is testimony to us that the persecution and martyrdom of the saints is not a victory of the evil one. Rail as he might against faith and Christ and the Gospel – trying to tear each and every believer away, the evil one is not able to overcome the faith of the one who is in Christ.
As we look at the martyrs – both of the early church and of more recent times – they are not overcome with fear – they are not overcome with doubt – they are not overcome by the forces of evil arrayed against them. Each of them was given the victory of faith through Christ.
And so it is for us and the church as a whole today. Those who gather with us to hear God’s Word are those whom God calls to faith so that they would be made new and restored to live as His children in this world.
God, Himself is the one who calls us. It is He who gathers us. It is He alone who enlightens us and keeps us in faith so that we remain members of His Kingdom even as we live our lives surrounded by the evil one. Even as the world threatens in every way possible to take from us everything we think we should hold dear, God works through His Word and His Spirit to keep us believing and trusting in Him.
But because we are not yet completely free of the sinful desires and worldly inclinations with which we were born, we easily forget what our Lord teaches us in our text. Our Lord would have us know that we live in this world, but because He has rescued us and given us faith, we are no longer OF this world. Jesus, Himself, says of us, “They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.”
But neither our sinful flesh nor the world around us can comprehend this. It is why we are so easily tempted to give into the world and it’s way of thinking. It’s why we look with worldly eyes and think that the church is dying. It’s also why the world hates us.
The world desired Jesus’ death and destruction because He simply was not one of them. He was holy and righteous. And because He has rescued us and connected us to Himself, now the world hates us and seeks our destruction as well.
If you follow the news at all, you know the mob mentality of the world. It cannot stand it when anybody stands out and apart from them. Prominent politicians are now speaking up and saying that the Church must be made and forced to accept worldly wisdom and worldly standards.
But this is nothing new. It’s been happening in our homes and in every area of our personal life for a long time.
And in our weakness and the struggle we undergo to live our lives as those who have been rescued by Jesus, we often fall into one of two traps.
The first is, we give in. We allow ourselves to be convinced that we must embrace new ways of thinking. In order to live and get along with those we love, we give up on what God has clearly revealed and we bow our knee to popular culture’s view of right and wrong. And so we turn a blind eye to this, that and the other. In so doing, we ignore our duty to love and care for those whom God has placed into our lives. We fail to warn them and do what we can to guard and protect them from the dangers and negative consequences of their behavior and actions. In short, we just decide to live and let live.
And so the first trap we fall into is to allow the world to hold onto one after another of our loved ones and slowly separate us from our faith and trust in what God reveals as true. By remaining silent we keep those around us blind to the love and mercy of God in Christ who desires to call them out of darkness into His marvelous light – and we dim the light of faith that God has caused to be lit within us.
But the second trap is just as unloving – and perhaps even more dangerous. The second trap is to reject the word of Christ when He says, “I do not ask you to take them out of the world.”
We fall into this trap when we hold ourselves aloof from the world and its problems; when we separate ourselves from those caught up in sin and entangled by the evil one or; we look at God’s mercy and grace toward us and fail to recognize that He has the same mercy, grace and love for all whom He has created. We fall into this trap when we get angry and frustrated and upset with those who are simply lost and confused and deluded by a world caught under sin so we drive them from our lives and cut them off from us. And the result is, they are never given the opportunity to hear of God’s love and care for them in Christ from our lips.
So God gives us this word in the Gospel of John to call us to repent of our foolishness – to turn back from our fear of the world and it’s ways. He gives us this word to keep us from from walling ourselves off into an enclave that shuns the world and ignores the need that those around us have for Christ and His grace and mercy. He gives us this word so that we don’t simply stand with the Apostles on the day of Christ’s Ascension – peering into the heavens – awaiting His return to rescue us and just allow the rest of the world to be damned.
And so today, Jesus reminds us that because of what He has done in forgiving our sins by His death on the cross, what He has done in giving us His Name in our Baptism, what He accomplishes by giving us His Word and filling us with His spirit. He has made us His own so that we are not OF this world – even though we remain here living in it.
And by doing so, Jesus seeks to convince us of who we are in Him. We are those whom God has set apart. That’s what it means that we are sanctified. We are set apart – forgiven through the shed blood of Christ, we are different from the world. We are not holy and righteous in ourselves, but Christ has made us one with Himself – and HE is Holy and Righteous. We have been called by His Name – We have been given His Word and His Spirit – and He has ascended on high to live and reign to keep and preserve us as His own.
We dare not jump too quickly over this fact. We must be firmly convinced as to who we are in Christ and what He has accomplished for us – and we can never believe we have accomplished any of it for ourselves. God in Christ has accomplished it all. God the Father sent the Son to win forgiveness for your sins. He sent you His Word, He baptized you into His name and connected you to Himself, still today He works and is active causing you to continue to hear His voice and know Him. None of this is your own doing. It is done for you – it is a gracious gift from our good and gracious heavenly Father.
And now – because God has revealed Himself to you – because He has washed you with the waters of baptism – called you by His own name – connected you to Himself – because He has set you apart from the world through His word – you are now not of the world. It’s an accomplished action – a finished reality. God has made you His own in Christ.
And for this reason, we must do away with our worldly way of thinking – we can no longer look at things the way the world does – in terms of popularity and what outwardly appears to be success or failure. We can now only look at things the way God does – knowing that He was and is in full control over all things.
And this gives us the hope and strength that we need to continue to live in this world even though we are no longer OF this world.
God has graciously allowed us to remain in order that we may participate with Him in accomplishing His purposes. That’s right, God has left us in this world because He desires to make us participants in the work He does to save others.
We cannot do this if we hold ourselves aloof and separate. And we cannot do this if we remain afraid to speak and silently shrinking back as the world rails and rages against us.
We do accomplish this good and gracious work of God when we are convinced that we are those who have been made new and different from the world – not because of who WE are or what WE have done, but because of who God is and what He has done for us in Christ.
Understanding this of ourselves is the first step to getting over our fear and anxiety as we live in this world.
The next step is to realize that those who hate and rage against Christ and His Church are merely those God has not turned and converted. They are lost in error and delusion. They cannot help themselves. They cannot be or do any differently. We ought to have pity on them and sorrow over them rather than rage and spite against them.
Such an attitude toward those who hate us would lead us to follow the example that Jesus sets for us in our text. If we knew and understood this, we would be forced to our knees in prayer for the world and even those who abuse and persecute us – begging the Father to have His Word take root in their hearts – and we would find every opportunity to speak of Christ’s work in rescuing lost, deluded, and erring souls into their ears.
This is, in a nutshell, a description of the work of the Church. This is what it means to be the people whom God has called into citizenship in His Kingdom – living in this world. It means humbly begging our God to keep and preserve us in faith so that we would not fall away from the faith as He sends us to deliver His Word to call people out of sin and error. It means praying for the world and all those we love that God would mercifully cause them to believe in His forgiveness and mercy in Christ.
Indeed, recreated by the power of the Holy Spirit to live in this world, we will be called upon to do much more than this. And by His Spirit working in us, we will, indeed, do much more as we love and serve a world and people still held in bondage under sin.
But the aim and focus of our life as His Church – those who have been given His Word and His truth – is to first and foremost entrust ourselves to His power to keep and preserve us in the midst of this world so that we may faithfully accomplish what He has for us to do.
And relying upon this, we are given strength and courage to take up the cross of being scorned and hated by the world and yet stand firm in His truth. What’s more, we are given the mind of Christ who prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Because we know that unless and until the Gospel takes root by the power of the Holy Spirit, there is no other way to walk in this world but in hatred toward Christ and all that is His.
But when the Holy Spirit touches the heart and mind, when God works faith in a person to believe in His mercy and grace, there is no other way to live but in faith and trust in God’s continued love and care as those who have been set apart as His own.
Therefore, in the midst of the troubles and trials of this world, may our Lord and Savior give us such a heart and mind to know and believe that He has set us apart as His own and that He continues, by His omnipotent power and might to keep and preserve us. And may He keep us constant in prayer and action causing His joy to be fulfilled in us so that we would take up the tasks that He has given to us and live as the salt and light He has recreated us in Christ to be. In the Name of Jesus. AMEN.