Epiphany 3 2011

Epiphany 3

Read from the pulpit immediately before the sermon this past Sunday:

We can’t let this terrible anniversary pass by unnoticed today. For we are a people of unclean lips, a people of violence. For the past 28 years our country has not merely turned a blind eye to the murder of babies in their mothers’ wombs, but has claimed it was some sort of right, using its power, influence, and finances to aid and abet this crime.

The women themselves are victims as much as the babies. They are generally young. They are afraid. They are hormonal. They have trouble making decisions. However it happened, hardly matters: they want out of it. And they’ve been sold a bill of goods that sex doesn’t have consequences, that they shouldn’t have to suffer for their actions or for the actions against them.

The medical community sterilizes abortion with words. They pretend like it is a surgery without any consequences or effects, like having a mole removed. But there are consequences, increased risk for cancer, damage to other organs, threats to future pregnancies, and, most significantly, the broken and empty heart that no doctor even pretends to address or fix. The medical community valiantly struggles to cure diseases, to deal with all sorts of problems of the body, to save lifes. That is hard, good, and necessary work. But it is not hard to kill babies. That is easy. In fact, you don’t need a doctor. The doctor brings to the abortion no real skill or knowledge. What he brings is legitimacy, a lie that this is a good, clean, and healthy procedure.

The legalization of abortion has misled and deceived these poor women. It has stolen their babies and their youth. This is our great shame. We are a country unable to recognize and protect women and children, but would have them killed or ruined in the vain hope of saving some money and of not having more of those people.

For this, I am sincerely sorry. I weep for the victims, for the babies, for our country. I want to do better. Kyrie Eleison. God save us.

The only hope we have is the Gospel itself. Only the death of Christ can atone us, can reconcile us to the women and children, and only the resurrection can reunite us. Those babies won’t come back. May God in His mercy intervene and change this vile law. May He change our hearts and will to be in conformity with His own. May He bring comfort and hope to those hurting from it and give us the courage and love to be a place and a people that accepts and loves the victims and the criminals without fear of consequence, and a people who will also speak the truth even when it is costly.

Here follows the sermon…

Matthew 8:1-13

In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

From the Mount of Beatitudes came again Our Lord to Capernaum. There He encountered the good centurion, who had learned to love Israel and her God and had built them a Synagogue. The good centurion represents the end of Capernaum. It is not merely that it is occupied by a foreign army, but also that the center of God’s people is shifting from Jerusalem, from that Temple built with hands, from Palestine, to Him who lays down His life and takes it up again, who is a House of Prayer for all people in the fullest sense of the term. The old boundaries of the Law, that is the boundaries of the old Temple, the boundaries between Jews and Gentiles, men and women, priests and laity, are being dissolved in the Person of Jesus Christ.

It is revealing to lay out the accounts of this miracle from St. Matthew and St. Luke side-by-side. Because there has been a shift, as we know. The Apostles were all circumcised, faithful and pious Jews, but after Pentecost, and some brief struggles with the flesh, they lost all distinctive Jewishiness. Once the ceremonial laws of distinction and separation were fulfilled, God’s people married Gentiles without a second thought and the distinctiveness simply evaporated. Babel’s curse was undone in the resurrection. There are no longer separate races of men, if there ever were. There are no Jews or Gentiles. The divorce between men has been rectified and reconciled.

Notice this also: the Church of Jesus Christ is no more Gentile than it is Jewish. You are not a bunch of Gentiles. For the character of being a Gentile was being a pagan, denying the Creator and Savior. In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek. So you have a new identity. You are baptized. We do not share an outward commonality or genetic code. We share something more lasting, more significant, more defining: an inward and spiritual renewal. We are not Jews or Gentiles. We are the sons of Abraham. Abraham believed and it was reckoned unto him as righteousness.

So what happens, when St. Matthew and St. Luke are set side-by-side, is that we discover St. Matthew gives the “pro-Gentile” version, and St. Luke gives the “pro-Jewish” version. This seems strange at first because Matthew is writing to a primarily Jewish audience. But that is the point. He wants his readers, mainly Jews, to recognize that the Kingdom is occupied by faith, and thereby open to Gentiles. At the same time, St. Luke is writing primarily to Gentiles. But he would not have the younger brothers despising their elders or take this high praise from the Lord for the centurion in the wrong way. So he upholds the elders and he respects the Law. Thus St. Luke presents the entire thing in much more reserved tones than the reading from St. Matthew we heard this morning.

In this, we see something very commendable about the Evangelists themselves and how they go about ministering to those to whom they are called. Matthew rebukes the Jews. Luke rebukes the Gentiles. Everyone needs a rebuke, a call to repentance. Everyone is in danger of pride. Both Evanglelists do this not in malice but in love. For their ultimate purpose is to call their readers to faith in the Messiah.

The good centurion therefore goes not to feast with Alexander, Scipio, and Caesar, but to the heroes of the Christian faith: to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They are now his kin. He calls Abraham father. He is a child raised up from a stone. And those who had only an outward connection, will discover it was not enough. The distinctive thing about Abraham was not his curly hair and great learning. Nor was it the outward circumcision. It was his faith, his hope in the grace of God in the Messiah for the forgiveness of sins and reconciliation to the Father. To be a son of Abraham is to be circumcised in the heart and washed in the Blood of the Lamb.

Those who thought they were sons of the Kingdom by right, were wrong. No one, including the good centurion, is fit or worthy of this. The Kingdom is bestowed by grace, upon the undeserving, or not at all. Those who think they come by right, whether that is because they were baptized in the Missouri Synod, because some relative of theirs went to Concordia Seminary, or because their mother was Jewish, will all be cast into the outer darkness, beyond Gehenna, in a worse place, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Weeping comes from sorrow. Gnashing of teeth is not due to anguish or physical torture, but anger. They wanted to go their own way on this earth, to be their own lords. They insisted they be judged and handled according to their own history and righteousness. So they will be. They will be given over precisely to what they desired and shall spend eternity in their own sin, in darkness, in sorrow, and in frustrated, debilitating anger; weeping and gnashing of teeth.

This shows us how terrible anger is. We’ve probably been too influenced by Dante’s brilliant poem. Hell is not the place where sins find tortures fit for them. It is the place where men are given over to their sins; to what they want; where there is nothing to mediate them from themselves, where there is no Law, and they are alone. This, I think, is actually what Dante wanted to demonstrate through metaphor and symbol. The problem is probably that he is too good at it and we get caught in the art and miss the point.

In any case, anger is probably our most accepted sin. We give in to it all too easily. It has a vain air of strength. I saw a bumper sticker washed in red, white, and blue just this week that said something like “No comfort or aid to the enemy – ever” with a big exclamation point. That sentiment is direct contradiction to our Lord’s command that we love our enemies. But it makes us feel good for a brief moment to pound our chests and strut around and talk about vengeance. Only we probably don’t use that word, either because we don’t know it or because it sounds bad. But vengeance is what we want. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord. That means it is not yours. And if you take by force what is the Lord’s, you will be damned. Whereas we mostly recognize that the man who is overcome or addicted by greed, drunkenness, or lust as a slave, we mistakenly think that the wrathful or angry man is strong. He is not. He is just a much a slave as the others, maybe worse, because his sin is more directly tied to pride. All sinful anger is tinged with more than a little self-righteousness, as though the injustices and slights you’ve suffered were cosmically significant an the whole universe ought to stop on your behalf. How dare someone cut in front of you in traffic. Don’t they know how important you are?

The Holy Spirit does not move us to anger, but to pity. When the Lord describes the Hades of those whose pride leads them to think that God owes them something, because they belonged to the right club or knew the secret word, as opposed to those simply ignorant of the Truth, He describes it as a place where people will gnash their teeth and make themselves angry without relief. Here is the point: giving into anger, being angry, is to bring upon yourself a little Hell on earth now. Stop it. Repent. Let it go. Turn. To give in to anger is to gnash your teeth against God and insist on your own way. You only hurt yourself and those you love. Repent.

Consider the good centurion. He is a model of virtue, which is to say, of faith, hope, and love, along with patience, humility, and wisdom. What happens to the good centurion’s servant physically is an illustration of what had happened already to the good centurion spiritually. The Lord worked physical healing and life in the servant, from afar, by His Word. He did the same, spiritually, for the good centurion. Though he was unfit, in a Levitical sense, and unworthy, in a moral sense, the Lord healed his soul with His Word. He gave him not a new place, not a new thing, but the place that is bestowed upon faith through grace: a place with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, a place in the Kingdom. The centurion is healed, is reconciled, is forgiven, is loved.

No wonder then that his prayer has been taken up by the Church as the traditional prayer before receiving the Body of Christ. We are not worthy or fit that Christ enter into us. We are morally impure. We have sinned. We are ceremonially unclean, distracted, lacking in proper fasts and discipline, unprepared. But the Lord says the word, “Take, eat, this is My Body” so we do, at His command, as men under authority, and our souls are healed. We are joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and thereby given a place with Abraham, by faith, and made partakers, Temples even, of the Kingdom and the Spirit and the Christ.

This is the real miracle in Capernaum. Yes, the centurion and his servant are healed. But that is not the chief thing or the chief miracle. It is not even the centurion’s faith. It is Christ. Christ, Himself, His Grace, His undeserved love, His mercy, is the Miracle. He is the Kingdom. He is the Hope of Israel. He is the Savior of Gentiles. He is Giver of Faith and the Creator of Christians, making us brothers, daughters, and brides all in one glorious Word: It is finished.

In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Pastor David Petersen

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