Catechesis for Easter 2

Join us each week after Divine Service (~10:15am) for coffee, treats, and a study of the Sunday Gospel text. Join us as you are able. Children and adults welcome alike. No advance preparation is required.

Topics included:

  • Questions about the Sunday Gospel (John 20:19-31)
  • The testimony of the eyewitnesses and the fear of the disciples
  • The peace of the G0spel is the forgiveness of sins
  • The servant relationship of the pastor to the congregation
  • How to relate to others who hold different confession than your own


“In the Name of Jesus” – Rogate 2013 – John 16:23-30

05. May 2013
St. John 16:23-30

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

John 16:23 In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. 24 Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. 

It was only a little while before Jesus would leave His disciples. Soon they would see Him no more. The intimate personal contact would be broken. We have seen the despair and fear of the disciples after the crucifixion. It seemed as if the bottom had fallen out of everything. The disciples had staked all on Jesus. They had given up their businesses and followed Him. Their lives had come to revolve around Him. Where Jesus went, they followed. The disciples’ lives were given to Him. But when Jesus was gone, the heart was taken out of their lives.

Jesus knows this feeling too. He was human like you and I, and He knew how far the disciples would be able to get along without Him on their own strength. So during the forty days between Easter and Ascension, He prepared them for His departure. The risen Christ did not fit back into the lives of the disciples as they had been living with Him previously. That is what Mary Magdalene wanted, but Jesus said, “Touch Me not.” Before Calvary the disciples had leaned heavily on Him. Jesus had carried them as lambs, as children. Now He wanted them to stand upright like men and go forth into all the world with brave hearts and voice, proclaiming the crucified and risen Savior. The visible presence of Christ, like spiritual hand holding, was soon to be withdrawn. Jesus was going on ahead, and He told them, “Follow Me!” Through all their lives, they were to know that Jesus was leading them forward. “I am with you.” The disciples walked in His steps. Following Christ, their journey was set from earth to heaven. They were to learn to walk by faith, not by sight.

Jesus knew the disciples’ weaknesses and promised them that He would not leave them comfortless. Down to their weakness would come the strength of the Spirit of God. By His power, the living connection with Christ would be maintained and strengthened. Although the tangible contact with the visible Jesus would be gone, a deeper, more inward contact with God was thrown open to them. The disciples were granted the renewed privilege of prayer. They had prayed before, but now they were to learn to pray so prayer would be for them a mighty, strengthening contact with God. So far they had prayed with sight, now they were to pray with faith alone. To all disciples of Christ who walk by faith and not by sight is given this same privilege and promise.

Much ridicule is nowadays heaped on Christian prayer. They say, “Do you suppose that a puny individual like you can change the laws that govern the universe? Can you, who are so sadly shoved around by others, influence the course of this world or interrupt the chain of gigantic events? If there is a God, do you suppose that He is going to pay any attention to you?” Before the barrage of such contempt, Christians have sometimes weakened and backed down. They qualify and weaken the Lord’s promise to match their own prayer experience so lacking in faith.

But this talk about unchangeable laws isn’t nearly so impressive as it once seemed. The scientists aren’t at all as sure about their unchangeable laws. The speed of light may not be constant after all. Thus, it isn’t by our own power that we seek to achieve anything. If we stood alone in our own puny weakness, then we must certainly shudder at the thought of God and hide our faces before Him. In us there is no hope, and if in heaven there is no Father, then we certainly cannot pray. If we cannot pray, it is all up to us. But our Gospel text does not just speak of God. It speaks of the Father. That makes all the difference in the world, all the difference between life and death.

It is only because God has come to be our Father that we can pray to Him. Only because Christ has taken our sins on Himself and wiped them out by His victorious death can we stand before God, forgiven, His children in Christ. Only as we are bound to Christ in Holy Baptism like little Esther, can we come before God as His children. In Baptism God sees us in Christ, wearing the garment of Christ’s righteousness. This is the key to a living connection with God our Father. All contact, all prayer with Him must be in Christ, in the name of Jesus, that is, with faith in Him.

Prayer can only rise from faith in Christ. Apart from Christ and His atoning, redeeming work, God is no one’s Father. It is delusive sentimentality to talk of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man without Christ. Only in the acceptance, the clinging to, the giving of ourselves over to Christ is God our Father or anyone our true brother or sister. Faith in Christ is rejection of self and all we have to offer. “Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling” (The Lutheran Hymnal, 376:3). Not I, but Christ. We come as beggars before God and have no right to ask anything. “We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all to us by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment” (Luther’s Small Catechism).

The perfect example of humble, selfless prayer is that sinner who, not venturing to go right into God’s temple, bowed his head, beat on his breast and sighed, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.” There was room for God in his empty heart. In the Pharisee there was no room. He felt no lack. He was making such a beautiful job of his life. His prayer was a summons to God to admire him. The publican went down to his house with a glad peace in his heart, justified. Jesus says so, as He does with the absolution, He bestows on penitent sinners by His use of the mouth that He has put there to speak, His forgiving words in His name. Our Amen speaks the prayer of faith in Jesus’ name.

Praying “in Jesus’ name” means to pray in the spirit, manner, and character of Jesus. Our prayers must be of the Jesus kind. Just as faith is created in our hearts by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God, so by the Word we are given guidance and example in the art of prayer. There we find our Lord in His life so rich in prayer. As we come to know Him better and are drawn closer to Him, our prayers will take on more of His character. We often take on the manners and speech of those with whom we associate. Traveling closer with Jesus, our prayers will be more and more pulled into the purposes for which Jesus gave Himself. In the name of Jesus is in the name of Him who is our Savior. Therefore, in the name of Jesus, we can ask nothing that is contrary to our salvation. Whatever would harm us or draw us away from our Savior is not in the name of Jesus.

Can we always know what is good or not good for building us up in stature for our salvation? Of course not. The confession that our heavenly Father knows better than we is basic to all rightful prayer. If you ask Christians, “Are you wiser than God?” they will, of course, say no, but if each of us will examine our prayer life, we will surely see how often we speak to God as if we know better than He. We become impatient and grumble when God doesn’t jump to it and do as we tell Him. But someone will object, “Hasn’t God promised to hear our prayer and give us everything for which we ask?” That is true, so long as it is asked in Jesus’ name. As we might say, that is the catch. Is that just a loophole for God? Not so! God would not be our loving heavenly Father if He gave us everything that we wanted, just as those are pretty poor parents who give their children everything they want.

God loves us too much to give us everything we want. He draws a boundary around the things that He promises to give us in answer to our prayer. That boundary is His love. So often God’s curse is His letting people have just what they want. That is the way people get to hell. God says, “Well, if you insist on cutting yourself off from Me and going full speed to hell, you shall have it your way.” If we deliberately shut God out of our life, God finally says, “All right, you shall have it as you want it.” Because God is our loving heavenly Father, He restricts His promise to those things that are for our good, which draw us close to our Savior, in whose name alone we pray properly. As our mind and wishes come more and more into line with our Father’s mind and wishes, we shall more fully pray in the name of Jesus. If we learn to pray in the manner of Christ, we shall learn of Him to say, “Not my will, but Thine be done.”

Yet even when our Father, out of love, refuses to give us that particular thing for which we may be foolishly asking, our prayer is not unanswered. The heart of our prayer is always granted us. Take the old example of little William asking Mother for a sharp knife. The heart of the child’s request is that he may have fun playing with the knife. Mother refuses to give little William the knife, yet by doing that, she grants the heart of little William’s prayer. Young William thought he would be happier playing with the knife. Mother knew he would be happier not playing with it. The happiness of William has been granted, though he may pout for an hour and think his mother most hard and unloving. So also our Father in heaven deals with us as His children, who so often ask for foolish and hurtful things.

It does not follow from this that we ought not to ask for particular things. We should have no desire about which we are ashamed to tell our Father. He is pleased with us when we speak to Him as dear children speak to their dear Father, even if it is about a new pair of shoes or the tomato plants, but always with the confession, “Lord, You know only too well what a foolish person I am and how apt I am to ask for hurtful and selfish things. To me it would seem that these things would be good for me and my neighbor, but I will leave it all up to You.” Not my will, but Thine be done. We will learn to pray, “Lord, teach me to serve Thee with all I am and have” instead of a prayer that goes no further than “Lord, give me more money.” In the perfect prayer our Savior taught us, there is only one petition for earthly things. We need them for a while and are glad and grateful for them, but the whole weight of prayer is in the things that last for good, that work our salvation, the things our Savior came to accomplish.

For these we can ask without condition. God has to grant them to us. He has promised, and God is faithful. Claiming Jesus’ blood and merit, God has to forgive us our sins. That certainty is “in Jesus’ name.” We can hold God to His promise. That, however, means that we trust His promise. We may never complain of our prayer not being heard if we pray with a hit-or-miss attitude that says, “I don’t know whether it will do any good, but I don’t suppose it can do any harm either, so I may as well give it a go.” This is insulting to God because not taking God at His word entertains the possibility that God is a liar. Thus all our prayers must be with confidence. We must take God at His word: “Not one word has failed of all His good promise” (1 Kings 8:56). When we pray for our salvation for Jesus’ sake, God has to give it to us. When we pray for earthly things, we tell our Father what we would like and are confident that He will give it to us. If it is for our good and He does not grant it just when and how we like, we know that He gives us what is better for us. The heart of our prayer, our sure good, is always granted. We confess, “Lord, You know what best, and we trust Your promise to hear our prayer.”

When prayers seem unanswered, let us not first blame God but begin closer to home. Let us examine our prayers and see if we are not, perhaps, trying to order God around, telling Him just how and when He is supposed to do what we tell Him. Let us ask ourselves whether Jesus and all He stands for and wants to accomplish in us are at the heart of our prayer. If there is no Jesus in our prayer, then it is no prayer and we have no Father to hear us. How beautiful are our Collects that end “through Jesus Christ our Lord” in their recognition of this fact that without Jesus it is no prayer. Yet not in words mechanically added on for a prayer, but only in heart-filling faith and reliance in Christ do we pray properly in the name of Jesus.

Scripture abounds in examples of answered prayer, but there are also examples of what we would sometimes be tempted to call unanswered prayers. A Gentile Samaritan woman prayed to Jesus for her daughter. Jesus said it wasn’t fit to take the children’s bread and cast it to dogs. Her prayer’s answer came later to that conquering, humble faith that clutched Jesus’ words and cried, “Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table” (Matthew 15:27). Mary begged Jesus to do something for the embarrassed host when the wine gave out at Cana’s wedding. Jesus replied that He had His own good time. “When Lazarus lay dying, his distressed sisters sent to their best friend for help. Jesus tarried and Lazarus died. St. Paul was afflicted with a thorn in the flesh and prayed three times to be cured of it. God did not take away that thorn, but He built Paul up to bear it. Monica prayed forty years for her son gone to the dogs. Ambrose comforted her that a son of so many prayers could not be lost. And her son was finally gripped by Christ and became the great man of God, Augustine.

If God seems to tarry, let faith cling fast. We are given the example of the widow who kept troubling the godless judge until he gave her justice just to get rid of her pestering. Jesus says we can surely expect better treatment than that from our Father in heaven.

Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:9-11)

Today we have only considered prayer as asking, but it is infinitely more. Prayer is, first, an act of worship. We open ourselves to God. Guided by His Word, we point ourselves in His direction. Prayer is an answer to God’s word of saving, life-giving love in Christ. In prayer we make reply to Him, giving Him back our love, our adoration, our praise, our loyalty, our lives. As we pray we are in contact with God our Father through Christ, and therein we are made strong as His children. The more we pray, the stronger we are. We can only breathe out as often as we breathe in. Prayer is the heartbeat of the Christian life. As we are alive in Christ, we pray. AMEN.

Adapted from a sermon by Dr. Norman Nagel preached in London in 1957.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana

“The Giver God” – Cantate – James 1:13-18

28. April 2013
James 1:13-18

A sermon by Dr. Norman Nagel preached in Cambridge in 1967, revised.

Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Don’t be tricked. There are some things you can rely on and some things you can’t. One thing you can never rely on, one thing that will always deceive you, is sin. Sin pulls the great advertising deception, and what makes us suckers to such advertising is our own desires. We want to make ourselves big. We want people to envy us. We want to do ourselves good. That sets us up to be played for a fool.

The art of advertising consists largely in playing on our weaknesses, our desires. Just check and see how many advertisements seek to take you in by subtle appeal to your pride or to some desire. “Wear this clothing and you will really wow the girls, or this particular alcohol will make you feel luxuriously upperclass.” People must be fools to be taken in by such stuff, we are tempted to think, but the fact remains that such advertising works and pays. The appropriate way to treat people, then, would seem to be as fools . So don’t blame the advertisers so much. They are only being realistic in the way they treat people.

Not all advertising is false. The product may be a good product and the claims true. But the advertising that sin does is always false both as to the technique of advertising and the product. Nevertheless, it works. It works because we are enticed and drawn away by our own desires, so we get hooked. The dishonest money we thought would do us so much good can only be kept by inflicting injury on our consciences and often inflicting injury on those who really love us. The adultery that promised to be such fun results in bitter personal damage. The drugs that promise happy experiences enslave and wreck a person. In the end, sin sits and laughs at us.

The question then is whether we ever learn our lesson: “once bitten, twice shy.” We acknowledge that we have been played for a fool, which is a difficult acknowledgment to make. Like mother Eve, we would rather make excuses and put the blame elsewhere. We are righteously indignant. Sin should have kept its promise and paid up. We have been cheated. Who is to blame? Not us. So, it must be whoever is behind it all. Like father Adam, we can blame God. If you can pin the blame on God, then you have certainly cleared yourself.

But that dodge simply won’t work. God does not trick or entice into evil. Don’t make that mistake. Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. The way sin operates is not the way God operates. We can’t do business with God as we are tricked into doing business with sin. God does not trick us with the offer of a good deal as sin does. He does not make dazzling false promises. Not only is God no swindler, He is not a dealer at all.

God is a giver. With a giver you can receive or reject, but you can’t make a deal. And a deal is what we are always wanting to do, for when we are doing a deal, we can negotiate terms, calculate what we put  into it and what we get out of it. Sin is always ready to play this game with us, for this is the way sin gets the advantage of us. James says that the giver God does not try to get the advantage of us. That sort of thing is ruled out with Him, so we can’t get the advantage of Him either. He doesn’t play that game at all.

The game God plays is giving, and what a game and what giving! Every good thing comes from His giving hands. God simply loves to give, and we can never change Him into a dealer no matter how hard we may try. There is no changing the giver God into any other kind of god. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).

You can play all sorts of tricks with shadows. Shadows can play all sorts of alluring tricks. But St. James was not thinking here so much of illusions or motion picture lighting tricks but the shadows of the planets and stars. From the shadowy deceptions of sin, God raises our eyes to the bright splendor of the heavens and the pure lights there. God is called their Father, their Creator. He made these clear lights, yet for all their bright splendor, He is more splendid and constant. As we look at planets and stars, they have their turnings, settings, and eclipses. Their light can fail us, but there is one who does not change or fail.

How do we know God and what He has done? We know Him by His giving. God has brought us to life as His children. Life is always a gift. We can’t make ourselves alive, as is shown in our natural birth. Little Esther did not choose to be delivered. This is also true of our spiritual birth—of our coming to life as the children of God. God used our mother’s bodies to give us the first kind of life. To give us new life as His children, He uses the “word of truth.” For us, this new birth was by the Word joined with the water of Baptism. It was plainly all gift. Life as God’s child begins as a gift, and it is gifts, gifts all the way. We live from the giving hand of God.

The greatest gifts are all given by the Word of God. The Word of God not only tells what these gifts are but also conveys them. When the word of forgiveness is spoken to you, forgiveness is given to you. When the Benediction is spoken to you, the blessing of God is given to you. In the sacraments, the Word is joined with extra means of conveying the gifts. It is then as if God takes your hand and presses His gift into it with the assurance, “Now you have really got it. Without a shadow of doubt, it is surely yours.”

Jesus would be nothing for us if the Word of truth did not tell of Him and give Him to us. A silent movie of Calvary would be nothing more than a tragic piece of newsreel. The soundtrack of God’s Word tells us what is going on there, what is achieved, and gives it to us with the words “for you.” Without the word of truth, the gifts would neither come to us nor would they be known as gifts.

This is true of the gifts of faith and also of all the smaller and more obvious gifts that are listed in the explanation of the First Article in Luther’s Small Catechism:

I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them. He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life.

Such gifts of the First Article, of creation, are received by many without the Word of God as if they were not gifts at all. They just happened for some reason or other or for no reason at all. They are taken for granted the way a dog takes his tail for granted. Or (more foolish than the dog) the way some people suppose that their good eyesight, muscles, income, and looks are theirs because there is something special about them that calls for their being treated well. God’s Word has to tell us the truth and bring us to recognize all these as gifts of God. Only then do they do we see them as our Father’s providential care.

You may think that is not such a difficult job for the Word of God to do because good eyesight, muscles, income, and looks are things that we naturally desire and often attain. We can be drawn to these by our own desires and gain them by greed, envy, and deceit. When sin promises good things of this sort, we are apt to sin. Rather receive what God has given with thanksgiving, we take what we want by dealing with sin. When God delivers the same goods, we think we have gotten them from Him by some kind of bargain.

People who take this position suppose that they are still in control of the negotiations, but, in fact, they are in a vulnerable position. If they do a deal with sin, they will be played for fools. If they think of doing a deal with God, they will find that God does not play that game. The idea of doing a deal with God can survive only as long as they get the things after which they desires. When they get things they don’t want, those who hold to a negotiating position with God yell that He isn’t playing the game according to the rules of doing a deal. Then they are likely to say, “If God does that to me, I am through with Him. He is not what God ought to be. I don’t believe in Him. He doesn’t exist.”

Of course, the God whom we could do a deal with does not exist. The living God is the giver God. This we know from His word of truth that has made us His children. That gift and all the others the Word of God tells us of, and the Word of God makes them gifts to us from our giving Father God. This is true of your breakfast and your shoes, and not only of such obvious gifts but also of all the things that God gives us. Whatever He gives is a good gift from Him because His word of truth says so. God’s Word settles it, not our judgment or our desires. It tells us all His gifts are good. He gives us His word that He is our Father.

“Father knows best” when spoken by earthly fathers does not always inspire confidence, but when spoken by the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, it does. After Calvary we cannot doubt God’s love. God does not give us any shady advertising talk. He tells us straight that He is going to make something of us, which will mean some sorrow and pain. God intends to kill what we are as sinners and make us new. “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6).

The Lord does not tempt or entice us as sin does, but He does test us. He tests whether we are the children of Himself, the giver God, or whether we have a god we have made up to serve our desires. Affliction is such a test. When affliction cleanses us of trust in a false god and draws us closer to the living, giving Father God, then affliction is a good gift, for which we can come to thank Him. He cannot not be our Father. God is bound by His word.

As children of our Father God, we cannot be blown about by the winds of fortune or played for fools by the shadowy allurements of deceitful sin. We can no more be destroyed than God can be made a liar. We belong to Him and are held to Him by His word of truth. We are the firstfruits. There is large promise in that. The first of the harvest was offered to God as token of the whole harvest, acknowledged as belonging to Him and as gift from Him.

To say firstfruits means there are more gifts to follow. With every gift, God pushes our hands wider open to receive a still larger gift. The bother with us is that we often hold our hands open just enough for little gifts in fear that if the gifts get too big they may overwhelm us. The gifts may begin to take us over, and we may not be able to manage them.  This is a genuine danger, for that is the way of gifts. You know how uneasy you get if somebody gives you lots of gifts-and rather big ones too. This uneasiness is born of our habit of doing deals.

Before God it is completely out of place. We can only have such an uneasiness before God if we are still thinking of doing a deal with Him. That we nevertheless have such uneasiness is betrayed by our notions of not letting our religion go too far, not too much Word of God, not church every Sunday, or not devotions every day. Some parts of our lives we simply must keep under our own control. To the extent that we still negotiate terms with God, we are setting ourselves up for a fearful crash. The God that can be negotiated with does not exist. If that is the one with whom we think we do business, our end is darkness.

As we live as the children of the Father of lights, the giver God, He will keep on pouring out His gifts, and they will overwhelm us more and more. The Epistle of James is mostly about what God’s gifts do to us, how they work out in our lives. Nothing remote or beyond the bright blue sky about this. The gifts shape how you use your tongue, how you treat widows and orphans, the hungry, people with money, people you employ. James points out that if you think your religion is just a good deal you have done with God for yourself, you have had it.

But in James 1, we get the starting point: The giver God, from whom comes every good and every perfect gift, has made us His children with His word of truth. As God pours the gifts, with each fresh gift, He gives us another nudge, “Come on, join in My game. Help Me give My gifts away.” God’s children play the game their Father’s way. To everybody else, to the deal-doers, it looks crazy, but, in fact, it is the best fun in all the world. With hands held wide to Him for His gifts, we will be moved and shaped by those gifts forward from firstfruits to the final joyous harvest. When we shall “sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things!” (Psalm 98:1)

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

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana