Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Other Lord’s Prayer

Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 20, 2012
We’re familiar with the Lord’s Prayer. We pray it often as our Lord has given it to us to pray. There is no greater prayer. There is no prayer that encompasses the way it does everything we need and everything we ought to pray for. In a sense, this prayer we have in today’s Gospel reading is more accurately the Lord’s Prayer as it is the prayer our Lord prayed to His Father as He was about to embark on that path to the cross. The Lord’s Prayer we pray often, this prayer we not only do not pray, we often do not even look at it. In the Lord’s Prayer we are given what to pray, in the prayer our Lord prays in John 17 we are given what our Lord prayed for us.

What is it that He prayed for us? Even though the Gospel reading begins in the middle of His prayer, we’ll start where the Gospel reading starts and we see Jesus talking about how He is no longer in the world. It’s obvious that Jesus was still in the world as He was praying these words. Jesus speaks as one who does not speak as we do. He speaks as God. We speak as people who are created by God. Jesus speaks with knowledge we do not know. So often our prayers are about things we don’t know. Things that are coming up and we need guidance or help. We’re asking God for a certain outcome. Whether it’s surgery or a change in occupation or a difficult decision we’re facing. There is so much we don’t know so we pray to the one who knows. We pray to our Heavenly Father who knows all things.

Jesus here is praying to His Heavenly Father. Yet, Jesus is God even as the Father is. Jesus prays knowing He is about to go to the cross. Jesus knows that even after being in the tomb three days He will be unbound. He will once again walk around as He is now, and yet He will not be limited by things like walls. He knows that soon He will ascend into heaven. He will no longer be in the world.

For Jesus this is all reality, even now as He is praying to His Heavenly Father. And so His prayer is prayed as one who is no longer in the world. His prayer at this point in the prayer that our Gospel reading shows us is for His disciples, the men He will call to be apostles. They are in the world. They will stay in the world. He will be going to the cross. He will be rising from the grave. He will be ascending into heaven. They’ll stay around. Thus, Jesus is praying for them. He knows, they’re not fully aware of what’s going on. So Jesus prays for them.

This is an invaluable thing Jesus is doing for us. It may seem the logical thing to do to transfer what He is praying for them to us and certainly it all applies to us. But before we do that think about what Jesus is actually doing. He is praying for them. He wasn’t spending time in some ivory tower speech, He was praying for those His Father gave Him; those who were close to Him; those He cared deeply for. Even if nothing of what He prayed for them applied to us, what He is doing is a loving act on His part which applies to us. We know elsewhere in Scripture that Jesus prays for us, one place being at the end of this prayer. The words He prays here for His eleven disciples is a beautiful picture of what He does for us. We’re in the world, are we not? We need help. We need Jesus praying for us. And we can be assured He does.

Knowing this, we can look to the words Jesus uses to pray for His beloved disciples. His prayer is that they may be one, even as He and His Heavenly Father are one. So how do you be one with others? It’s plain to see that as Christians we don’t always get along with one another. Does that mean we’re not one? The disciples themselves didn’t always get along. Jesus’ prayer for oneness isn’t, “Father, let them get their act straight so that they can get along.” He prays that His Father would keep them in His name. What has our Lord taught us to pray? “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.” In there, in His name, is found our oneness. It’s not in getting along, although that’s really nice, isn’t it?

God the Father is holy and we pray in the Lord’s Prayer that we may keep His name holy. As we are taught in the Catechism, how we do that is “when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as the children of God, also lead holy lives according to it. Help us to do this dear Father in heaven! But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the name of God among us. Protect us from this, heavenly Father!”

In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus doesn’t ignore difficult things we face. He addresses them head on, such as temptation and evil. The petitions “lead us not into temptation” and “deliver us from evil” show us that this life is not always easy. In His prayer He prays in our Gospel reading He tackles those same matters. These are sad words: “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” He also prays: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one.” We can’t think about Judas Iscariot without being saddened. We can well imagine how heavy of a heart Jesus had when He prayed these words about Judas. We can imagine how conflicted He was when He prayed that His beloved disciples would remain in the world even as they would be assaulted by the evil one.

When we consider our Lord’s prayer here in the Gospel reading and the prayer He taught us to pray we are brought to greater understanding of keeping God’s name holy; namely, “when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as the children of God, also lead holy lives according to it… But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the name of God among us...” Judas had been the recipient of the very same Word of God the others had. Even two thousand years later we are the recipients of that very same Word. What will we do with it? Will we reject it as Judas did, and thereby be doomed to destruction? Will we succumb to the temptations of the devil as Judas did and thereby not live holy lives according to God’s holy name?

Sitting here it’s easy enough to say, “No. I’ll be faithful, unlike Judas. I believe, unlike him.” Yet, in the time of temptation we are often weak. We do sin even as Judas did. But this is where it’s all the more important that we go back to these words of our Lord; His words of prayer for His beloved disciples. His promise that He prays for us in the same way. Even as He prayed for Judas. You are never too far gone for Him to stop praying for you.

When Jesus was praying this prayer for His disciples they weren’t aware of what would happen to Him, that He would suffer, die, and rise. They also didn’t know that He would soon after that ascend into heaven, leaving them on their own; as He says in His prayer: “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” They assuredly wondered what that was all about, leaving them. But it didn’t take long for them to see that He really didn’t leave them on their own. He continued to intercede for them. He delivered to them the Holy Spirit. He continued to come to them through the Gospel and His Sacraments He had instituted.

This should sound familiar, as He does exactly the same for us today. He ascended into heaven coming on two thousand years. But He is very present. He still intercedes as He did for His disciples. He continues to come to us when the Gospel is proclaimed and the Absolution is pronounced. He brings us into His life through Baptism and sustains us in that life through His Holy Supper. As we are also sent into the world by Him, what more could we want or need than having partaken of the very Body and Blood of our Lord? When Jesus prays to His Heavenly Father that His beloved disciples are sanctified in the truth and that the Father’s Word is truth, well, it’s no stretch that He does exactly that for us.

We go out into the world. We who are holy, sanctified, make known this very Word to others as well. His prayer for His disciples was fervent. His continual intercession and coming to us in His Sacraments is equally fervent. It really is a natural extension that this fervent love from Him to us goes to others. We extend that very love of Christ to others, sharing with them the love of God in which Jesus loves them and forgives them and died for their sins.

In the Lord’s Prayer our Lord teaches us to pray. So here with this ‘other’ Lord’s Prayer. In praying to His Heavenly Father our Lord is teaching us to pray. This is really our Lord teaching us what Paul says when he says we are to pray constantly. Our lives are lives of prayer. This doesn’t mean folded hands and bowed heads 24/7. At the very least we need to sleep. But we also have many other duties and callings, don’t we? We live and serve others and carry out the tasks our Lord has called us to. This is the life of prayer. We could take off from what we heard from John not so long ago, we love because He first loved us. In the same way we pray because He first prayed for us. We live because He first lived for us. Amen.


Sunday, May 13, 2012

God’s Commandments Are Loving

Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 13, 2012
What did we pray for this morning in the Collect of the Day? “That we may think those things that are right and by Your merciful guiding accomplish them.” We prayed to God, addressing Him this way: “O God, the giver of all that is good.” This is who our God is. He is God, and He is a God who gives, and He is the one who when He gives He gives what is good. If you learn this and take it to heart you will understand much of what you have in your life: what your life is and what you have been given. You will see that there is so much good. You will see more and more that when God gives it is what is good.

On Mother’s Day many mothers wonder where all this affection and thanks and gifts are the other 364 days of the year. It’s sad that so many of us don’t readily and joyfully thank our mothers, that we don’t give them the affection they deserve, that we don’t give to them in return for all their love and affection. If there’s any good in this perhaps it’s that our mothers don’t love us and care for us in order to receive thanks and affection.

That’s really what love is, isn’t it? Can you imagine if moms loved their children for love in return? There might not be much love they would give to their children. When moms love their children it’s much more that they just naturally love their children. That’s what love is. They want to love them and care for them and do what is best for them.

This leads to another thing we learn from our moms: that what they give us isn’t always what we want or what is pleasant. But it’s certainly love. And it’s definitely what is best for us. Love often means giving us things that our sinful nature recoils against. But that is exactly what we need. We need someone to love us in a way which won’t ignore our sinful ways.

In the Gospel reading today Jesus talks about His relationship with us. He talks about the relationship His Heavenly Father has with Him. In our moms we get a wonderful picture of the kind of love Jesus is talking about with us and that His Heavenly Father has for Him. It’s love that gives what is good, even if it’s painful.

So when Jesus is saying that as the Father loves Him so He loves us and then He starts talking about commandments and how we are to keep His commandments, well, we get a little squirmy. What do commandments have to do with love? How is it when God gives us commandments that that is good and that in this way He is loving us? He says: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love.” When we write our Mothers Day cards we probably aren’t saying things like, “Mom, thanks for telling me to clean my room and eat my vegetables.” We say things like, “Thanks for loving me and taking care of me.” As we grow older we see more and more that all those commands are part of that love, part of taking care of us. This is the way it is with God. He gives us His commands because He loves us and takes care of us.

Of course, a relationship that consists of the one in authority handing down commands and the one under authority obediently keeping them wouldn’t be much of a loving relationship. Fortunately, that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. He is talking about a true loving relationship in which He loves us and we love Him in return. Again, we have an excellent example of this is in our relationship with our moms. What kind of relationship would it be if all she did was tell us what to do and we simply did it because we had to? That wouldn’t be much of one. But it’s not that way. She loves us unconditionally and we love her and trust her and give to her. That we also do what she tells us to do we, hopefully, see more and more that it is because she loves us and it is what is best for us.

With Jesus He knows all this. He’s God and He is love Himself. His relationship with His Father is pure love yet even so Jesus delights in keeping His Father’s commandments. Does it seem odd that He does so? Yes, it does. He certainly doesn’t need to, He’s God. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have a perfect relationship without any commands needing to be kept. There is one reason Jesus keeps His Father’s commands and that is love. It’s love for His Father of course. But it’s really located in His love for us. Jesus keeps His Father’s commandments because of you and me. Because it’s what we need, because it’s what’s best for us.

So when Jesus talks about us keeping His commandments He’s not laying something down on us that zaps all the love out of our relationship with Him. He’s giving to us something that breathes love. If we’re honest, and hopefully we will be, we will see that we do not keep God’s commandments. We’re often like we are with Mom: “Do I have to?” We so often see God’s commandments as burdens. Kind of like the way we so often see the things Mom makes us do. But John in the Epistle reading says that “His commandments are not burdensome.” God does not gives us His commandments to burden us but to love us. That’s why we prayed in the Collect “that we may think those things that are right and by [His] merciful guiding accomplish them.” His commandments are loving.

That we sin and often recoil at God’s commandments shows that we often don’t think the things that are right, and we could also add good and beneficial. We need to keep in mind that when Mom tells us to do the things we ought to do these are first and foremost commands from God. Her authority is first and foremost God’s authority. By grace we will also see that her love for us also is first and foremost His love for us. He is loving us by giving us a mom to love and care for us.

So when Jesus says “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you,” He is not laying a burden on us. He is not telling us, “This is how you must obey Me, you must love one another.” He is giving to us. He is loving us by giving us a command which is not a burden but rather an act of love. We are to love others. Should we not? Should we not love others? Don’t we want to? Does a mother love her children because she has been commanded to by God? Doesn’t she rather do it because it is a  joy? Doesn’t she do it simply because she loves her children?

And so with us. We love others. If it seems a burden at times that’s because it’s hard work loving others. It’s hard when they’re not very loving back to us. It’s hard when it does seem to be a burden, when it takes a toll on our time or health or finances. But Jesus’ command is really an exhortation simply to love others in the way He has loved us. And how is that? He says that there is no greater love than someone laying down his life for his friends. This is love exemplified in Jesus. It’s His love for us, in which He loves us to an extent in which there is no greater extent. It’s not a love that has a limit or a love that can be exhausted or a love that places conditions on us. It’s a love in which He lays down His life for us.

When He laid down His life for us He didn’t just give His life, He took our place. He’s not just talking a physical act of salvation here. He’s talking about taking our place as we stand before God. He became as we are, a sinner. He became as one who deserves punishment for not keeping the commandments of God. He laid down His life so that when we die it doesn’t mean eternal death and condemnation.

The kind of love that draws Jesus to do this also draws Him to view us in a new way: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends.” Jesus is above all our Lord and Savior. He is also our friend. When you have close friends you know what a blessing they are. When you don’t you know that also because you know what you need. We need friends. Jesus calls us His friends. We know one friend we can always count on and His command to us is that we then love each other as fellow Christian friends. This command and this love is not burdensome. If it’s tough to love one another at times it’s because love is not an easy thing. It’s a conscious choice and effort. But the good news is that it’s love that flows out of the Father’s love for His Son and our Lord’s love for us in laying down His life for us, His friends.

We did not choose Him, He chose us. His love really comes down to that. He has loved us and continues to love us by giving us what we need to think those things that are right and by His merciful guiding accomplish them. Amen.


Sunday, May 6, 2012

Does Jesus Command You or Give to You?

Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 6, 2012
Here is something you can know in all certainty: Jesus will never lay anything upon you that He has Himself not endured. When you are mistreated, when dark days are ahead of you, when you wonder if God is still with you, when you are tempted and you don’t think you can bear up under the enticement, you are enduring exactly what you need. It is through these things that you are made stronger and are truly blessed. Jesus Himself has endured all of these things. He didn’t enjoin upon you commandments you ought to fulfill so that God the Father may then love you and care for you. He doesn’t place suffering and trials in your life while He placidly stands by as an onlooker. He doesn’t allow you to be tempted as one who enjoys seeing others squirm in their struggle against enticement. He doesn’t stand look from afar while you endure trials even as He enjoys seeing you wonder if He’s gone and has left you for good.

Jesus Himself has submitted to the commandments of God. Jesus willingly endured suffering at the hands of others and at the hands of His Father. Jesus endured the abandonment of His own dear Father, being forsaken by Him.

The Bible in several places compares the Christian Church, the people of God, to a vine or a vineyard. Oftentimes God will lament that His vineyard, that He planted, was not bearing fruit. Even with all of His love and care for the vineyard, for His very own people, they would produce the opposite of good fruit, selfish and godless deeds.

Now Jesus makes a switch on us. He is the Vine. In a sense we are the vineyard of God but Jesus says that He is the true Vine. We are the branches. The same imagery still applies, being as Jesus says that whatever branches that do not bear fruit will be cut off. But notice that He isn’t a dispassionate observer. He isn’t sitting on the sidelines saying, Come on, bear fruit already. Get in gear.

He is the Vine. He doesn’t enjoin anything upon you He Himself does not endure. He is the Vine, His Father is the Vinedresser. The work that is done of the Vine by the Vinedresser is not done merely on the branches. It is done first and foremost on the Vine. What is done to you by your Heavenly Father has first and foremost been done by your Heavenly Father to His dear Son.

If a vine could think and understand what is going on around it it would think the vinedresser is causing it harm with all the digging around it he does and all the cutting of it. All this work of the vinedresser would not be experienced by the vine as a pleasant experience. It would be the opposite of a pleasant experience. And yet, the vine would emerge from all that work the vinedresser did healthier and producing more fruit. The vinedresser’s work is for the good of the vine.

It is the same way with the work of your Heavenly Father, who is the Vinedresser. He works away at His Vine and the branches. Since you are not just a plant you are very aware of the pain and the seeming harm all of His work does to you. It is in fact not a pleasant experience. You do in fact question Him and why He is doing so. When a vinedresser takes his shovel and hoe and clippers to the vine damage is being done in order to provide an environment in which the vine can grow and thrive. This is what happens when your Heavenly Father takes the shovel and clippers of trials and temptations and uses them to clear out those things which hinder your growth as a Christian. You can’t just water a vine you need to keep working at it and pruning it. God doesn’t just let you be, He keeps working at you with His work of pruning.

When you see a vine you know that there is a plant that has not created its life and does not sustain its growth. If left on its own it will wither and die. A vinedresser must plant it and then work at it and prune it. In the same way you have life because your Heavenly Father has given you life. In the same way you are sustained in this life because God works at you and prunes you and sustains you in life.

Jesus’ teaching of being the Vine and you the branches overflows with grace and the love of God and the power and work of God. First, that He would be the Vine and undergo the same trials that you go through. If Jesus were your mentor or leader or guide He could easily stand by and point the way for you. But He is your true Shepherd, your true Savior, He is the true Vine. He is the Shepherd who lays down His life for you. He is the Savior who actually saves you. He is the Vine that endures every bit of trials and suffering and temptation that you do.

What He says here in being the Vine and you the branches shows you His grace and love and His power and work also because He isn’t saying to you that you are the branches so you’d better get moving and bear fruit. Of course it’s true that you need to bear fruit. But if He were simply telling you that you must do good works, how would that be any different from any other religion or philosophy? It wouldn’t and you wouldn’t be left with much from Him. When He says He is Vine and you are the branches and His Father is the Vinedresser He is making you aware that you are the recipients of God’s gracious love and care. He loves you and gives you what you need. He does the work of sustaining you in growth.

If a vine could think and its branches were aware of what they were they could easily see themselves as the source of the fruit they bear. Branches could easily forget they are connected the vine and think that they are the ones making possible the luscious fruit they bear. This happens very easily with you as well. You look at yourself and all the good you do and forget that you are not the one who makes it possible to bear this fruit. You forget that you are connected the Vine that is Jesus Christ and that your Heavenly Father is the Vinedresser who is constantly at work in pruning you and sustaining your growth so that you may bear the fruit of good works.

The reason you don’t think of this as the amazing thing it is is because it is so simple. It rests entirely on God’s work, what He does for you in your life. But you pass that off because you want to go beyond the simple work of God of forgiving and saving you and get to what you think must be the real thing God wants you to do and that is do good works. You hear it all the time in Christian circles and churches. You need to live more like Christ, you need to do more good works, or in the words of our Gospel reading, you need to bear fruit. All of this is true, there’s no doubt. But if you fool yourself into thinking that if you just try harder, do more, focus on what you as branches need to do then you are doing more than fooling yourself. You are not producing fruit and you begin withering and will eventually be cut off from the Vine.

Jesus said, “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.” His work in you and His Father’s work in you are never divorced from this work in you in which He cleanses you and forgives you. It really is that simple. His Word He speaks to you forgives you. You are clean. You are branches that have not somehow attached themselves to the Vine but have rather been given life by the Vine and are sustained in the life through Him. In this understanding Jesus counsels you, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” Branches do not produce fruit by trying. They produce fruit by abiding in the Vine.

Your sinful flesh is very powerful. It either latches on to that Law, which itself is powerful, which is insistent that you must do more, that you must try harder, that you must by your own power do good works, so that you either feel really good about yourself because you’re trying harder or you despair of yourself because you can’t seem to get better or aren’t sure if it’s enough for what God wants. The focus in either case is on yourself, not on Christ, the Vine, where it belongs. That’s why Jesus has you covered. He knows how you think. He knows you are prone look to yourself rather than to Him. So He expounds on His words of abiding in Him: “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

Do you believe that? If you do you will stop focusing on yourself and begin focusing on Christ. You will see your trials as what your Heavenly Father uses in your life to draw you to Christ rather than turn in on yourself in confusion or despair. You will see that Christ is far more powerful than anything you could think to do. This doesn’t mean, and Jesus isn’t saying, that you’re life will be a breeze. Yes, a branch on a vine just sits there. You are a living breathing disciple of Christ who lives each day doing many things and bearing fruit in many ways. That your life in Christ is difficult and challenging and filled with trials is borne out by how Jesus began, with you being pruned by God the Father.

This past week we were stunned in our community when Junior Seau’s life came to an end. It would have been a shock anyway, but the way it occurred makes it even more sad in his taking his own life. What we knew of him was a man who loved life, who excelled at what he did, and who gave so much to so many people. That he apparently was beset by demons within his own mind and spirit brings home the reality of the world we live in. Junior apparently thought there was no hope. What Jesus shows us in being the true Vine is that there is always hope. He is the Vine, you are the branches. Abide in Him. Know that even if you struggle or despair you abide in Him because He never lays anything upon you that He Himself does not give you. He knows everything you are going through, He Himself has experienced beyond what you could ever imagine.

Abide in Him, His Gospel, His grace, His mercy. Take and eat the body of Christ, for you; Himself whom He gives to you, for you. Take and drink the blood of Christ, for you; His blood poured out for you and given to you for your forgiveness. In and through this, but specifically, through Him, you then bear fruit. Apart from Him you can do nothing. As the Epistle reading today says, “We love because He first loved us.” Don’t spend your time trying to find ways to bear fruit. God gives you many opportunities in many ways. When someone impinges on your time that’s an opportunity to bear fruit. When you do simple things to serve and help others. These are not commands, they are opportunities Jesus gives you. He never commands or lays anything upon you He has not given you the ability to carry out. He is the Vine, who you are and what you have and what you do are all in Him. Amen.