Ceremonies: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost based on Mark 7:1-13

Dear reverent worshipers: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

It is good and important that we have ceremonies. Ceremonies serve good order and help to teach. Bowing your head to pray is a good ceremony, because it is a posture of humility before God and helps you not to be distracted by what is around you. Kneeling takes that even further and puts you on your knees before God, acknowledging your status as a humble beggar before God. We do after all approach God not based on our own merits, but the merits of Christ.

Certainly, the Divine Service is full of ceremony. The pastor faces you when he speaks God’s Word to you and faces the altar when speaking to God. Thus, he faces the altar to confess his sins along with the congregation and turns to face the congregation to speak absolution to the people in Christ’s stead and by His command.

Ceremony ensures that our worship is pious, ordered, careful, solemn, reverent, and liturgical. This is because we believe that Jesus is telling the truth when He tells us that wherever two or three are gathered in His name, there He is (Matt. 18:20). We believe that Jesus is telling the truth when He says, “This is my body… this is my blood… do this in remembrance of me.” (Matt. 26:26,28; Luke 22:19) Jesus is here, so we behave like He is here.

Our ceremonies reflect what we believe. We believe that the Word of God and the sacraments are the greatest gifts of God to us, because through them He gives us the forgiveness of sins. We thus treat them with reverence and respect and don’t turn our worship into chaos and disorder or have an attitude of irreverence or indifference. We treat holy things as holy.

Yet ceremony is just ceremony. You do not get the forgiveness of sins from ceremony. You can go through the motions of ceremony without believing or caring one way or the other. Let us not forget that Scripture tells us the antichrist sits in the temple of God (2 Thess. 2:4). The wolf puts on sheep’s clothing. Luther’s great Reformation hymn talks of the heretics and false teachers who parade with outward show and lead people to and fro, in errors maze astounded (O Lord, Look Down from Heaven, Behold TLH 260).

This was the case with the scribes who criticized Jesus’ disciples for not following their ceremonial washing of hands. This hand-washing was not for reasons of hygiene. It was a ceremony that was supposed to remind them of the need to be cleansed by God, to receive forgiveness, and to remind them that their food and sustenance came from God (from Rev. David Petersen). But they had become superstitious. They departed from following God’s Word and held to empty ceremonies they themselves invented. They abandoned God’s commandments and replaced them with their own made-up commandments

Jesus said to them, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

Jesus uses the example of the Fourth Commandment. The Fourth Commandment commands you to honour your father and mother. This includes honouring “them by your actions, that is, with your body and possessions, serving them, helping them, and caring for them when they are old, sick, feeble, or poor; all this you should do not only cheerfully, but also with humility and reverence, doing it as if for God.” (LC IV.111)

However, the scribes had invented a special offering, called Corban. Instead of supporting their elderly parents and taking care of them, they would give this special offering and not help their parents. It was a sham. They pretended to be piously giving God extra offerings (no doubt with lots of nice attendant ceremony), but it was all a ruse to break the Fourth Commandment and not fulfil their obligations to honour and support their parents. Their made-up commandments and ceremonies made void the Word of God and taught people to break God’s Law and follow the commandments of men.

The chief thing here is to avoid confusing the Commandments of God and the commandments of men. It is thus important to know and study what exactly it is that God commands and to question everything that man commands.

It is also important to understand the importance of ceremonies, why we do them, and how they provide reverence, piety, and solemnity to the Divine Service and to our daily devotional lives. Those who do not understand them are quick to dispose of ceremonies that the church has done for two thousand years.

What we must remember is that ceremonies are just ceremonies. Ceremonies do not save or give us the forgiveness of sins. The Word of God saves and gives us the forgiveness of sins. Baptism saves and gives us the forgiveness of sins. The Lord’s Supper saves and gives us the forgiveness of sins. Ceremonies don’t even help God’s Word and sacraments save and forgive sins. Rather, ceremonies serve to prevent distraction and prevent your attention being drawn away from the Word and sacraments.

For instance, I use the ceremony of holding up the body and blood of Christ for the congregation to see after the consecration while saying, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” Whether or not I do this, you receive the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. However, the ceremony draws your attention to the body and blood of Christ just consecrated. Here it is. This is for you. It is concrete and real. Christ has His promises attached to this bread and this wine, for they are His body and blood.

This goes together with the words, “The peace of the Lord be with you always.” How is it that you get peace? Through the body and blood of Christ you are about to receive. Christ gives you peace that the world cannot give.

Christ showed His pierced but resurrected hands to His disciples, the hands with which He earned them peace and said, “Peace be with you”. So, the pastor stands in the stead of Christ and holds the body and blood of Jesus with which He earned you peace, and says the same to you.

Christ’s body and blood give you peace with God because Christ died for you. He gave His body to be beaten and crucified and He gave His blood to be shed for the forgiveness of sins. He gives you that forgiveness in His body and blood.

You don’t need some hand-washing ceremony that points to purification and cleaning. You receive Jesus’ body and blood which purify you and cleanse you of every stain of sin. You receive Jesus’ body that strengthens you to life everlasting. You receive Jesus’ blood which washes away your sin. Through eating and drinking His body and blood, Jesus will grant you to partake of the greatest ceremonies of all in the feast of the Lamb in His kingdom which has no end. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

[A note for readers: Beginning in Advent, we will begin using the One-Year Lectionary.]

Offended by Jesus

Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost based on John 6:51-69

Dear followers of Jesus: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

We live in days when pretty much everyone is pretty much always offended. Everyone is so self-centred that they cannot even tolerate hearing a point of view different from their own. People are offended by natural marriage and families. People are offended by those who want to protect the lives of the unborn. People are offended because everyone doesn’t bow down to their newly fangled ideologies and perversions.

As the morals of society change, what is offensive changes. This is certainly reflected in the media. Things that used to be offensive to society and would never have been seen in television and movies are now common in most media. Yet things that used to be common in older movies and shows are now deemed offensive.

What has not changed and will not change is that the world will be offended by Jesus. Jesus has not changed. His Word is the same as it has always been. When people are offended by what Jesus says, they either twist it or stop listening to it.

In our Gospel lesson, many of Jesus’ disciples were offended by Jesus. They had been following Jesus, but then He said something that offended them, and they turned back and no longer walked with Jesus. They said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” They said that Jesus’ Word was difficult to accept, intolerable, and offensive. They did not want to listen to Jesus’ Word. They didn’t want to listen to Jesus.

Jesus was teaching them about the manna God’s people of old received from heaven, and said about Himself that He is the bread that came down from heaven; that He is the bread of life. Those who ate the bread in the wilderness died, but those who eat the bread of life will live forever. Whoever feeds on Jesus’ flesh and drinks His blood has eternal life.

Many of Jesus’ disciples didn’t like Jesus’ interpretation of the Scriptures as He taught them in the synagogue that day. They thought they could be disciples of Moses and followers of the Scriptures and faithfully attend the synagogue, but reject Jesus. They neglected to understand that the Scriptures speak about Jesus; that Moses spoke about Jesus; that the synagogue was the place to hear about Jesus.

Jesus had earlier said to the Jews seeking to kill Him, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (Jn. 5:39-40)

The Scriptures all speak of and point to Jesus for eternal life. He was there before their eyes and they were offended, and they rejected Him and refused to hear Him teach anymore. The words that Jesus said are spirit and life to them, they did not want to hear.

We too can be offended by Jesus’ words. We too have been so influenced by the rapid demoralization of the world around us that Jesus’ words can offend us. Jesus tells us to purge the unrepentant person from the church (I Cor. 5:13), but that sounds offensive and unloving to world-influenced ears. Jesus tells us to practice closed communion (I Cor. 11:17-32), but that too sounds offensive to world-influenced ears. Next week’s Epistle lesson tells wives to submit to their husbands as to the Lord (Eph. 5:22). There’s not much that will more offend this feministic society we live in and those influenced by it.

However, the reality is that the Law of God is not what causes people to stop walking with Jesus. That God gives rules and has standards for behaviour does not cause people to part from Him. Everyone expects that God should have standards and rules.

Look at what happened to the disciples in our Gospel lesson. Jesus didn’t give them an extra commandment, causing them to say, “Hold on, that’s one too many. We’ll take the Ten Commandments, but we can’t handle eleven.” They didn’t fall away because Jesus told them to work for their daily bread. They fell away from Him because He said that He is the living bread that will cause all those eating His flesh to live forever.

Instead of giving them more rules, He was giving them Himself and thus promising them eternal life; promising to raise them on the last day.

Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Many of Jesus’ disciples found this offensive.

What we have to understand is that when we find God’s Word offensive, that is our sinful nature rebelling against God. It’s our sinful heart saying, “I know better than God.”

When we find God’s Word offensive, we need to drown the Old Adam is us by contrition and repentance. We may not understand why God says what He says, but we must cling to His Word as the truth, because it is the truth.

The cross is a scandal and an offence because we don’t want to admit that we are sinful. We don’t want to admit that it was for our sin that Jesus suffered and died. We don’t want to admit that we need God’s forgiveness every day.

Yet, Jesus gives us the forgiveness of our sins. He gives us the gift of faith. He gives us His true body and blood. We feed on His flesh and drink His blood, so Jesus promises us that He is in us and we are in Him. He promises us that we will live because of Him. He promises us that He will raise us on the last day and we will live forever.

Do we understand this perfectly? No, but we still trust Jesus’ word.

Do you want to go away from Jesus and hearing His Word along with those who are offended by His Word? No, you don’t. We answer with Peter, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

You trust Jesus, because you know He is God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God. You trust Jesus because He is the one who took all your sins onto Himself and suffered and died for you, taking the punishment you deserve because of your sins. You trust in Jesus because He gives you His body and blood to eat and drink so that you believe and have come to know that all your sins are forgiven and you will live forever.

There will always be those who are offended by Jesus and thus turn away from following Him. We however will follow Him, because God the Father has granted to us to come to Jesus. We follow Him because He paid the price of our sins. We follow Jesus because He alone has the words of eternal life. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Walking as Christians

Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost based on Ephesians 4:17-5:2

Dear Christians: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Through Baptism, you are clothed in Christ. Christ Jesus has claimed you from darkness and ignorance. He has taken you from walking in the futility of your mind to walking as His baptized child. As a consequence of this, you have been changed and are not to follow the old man which is corrupt through deceitful desires; you are not to follow the desires of the flesh.

The Holy Spirit tells us through the apostle Paul in our Epistle lesson that we Christians are not to walk as the pagans and unbelievers of the world. We are given several examples of how we are to be different from unbelievers: “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil… Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” (4:25-32)

With the Fifth Commandment, God protects the body, with the Sixth the spouse, and with the Seventh temporal possessions. Just as God does not want our neighbour’s money or possessions taken away from him, God does not want his reputation, good name, and upright character taken away from him, so God gave us the Eighth Commandment (cf. LC 255-256). God knows how many families have been destroyed by gossip and slander and how many congregations have been split because of people breaking the Eighth Commandment.

God’s command to not bear false witness against our neighbour includes the particularly detestable, shameful vice of speaking behind a person’s back and slandering, to which the devil spurs us on. It is a common evil plague that everyone prefers hearing evil about their neighbour rather than good, although we ourselves are so bad that we cannot suffer that anyone should say anything bad about us (LC 264).

This is what unbelievers do. They destroy the reputations of others so that jobs are lost, careers and marriages ended, and mobs rise up to judge what is not their place to judge. You are commanded not to do the same.

You are then warned by the Holy Spirit to not sin in anger. “It is better not to be angry at all. But if one does fall into anger he should at least not be carried away by it toward something worse.” (Chrysostom) On no account are you to be carried into swelling rapids by the impulse of rage (Jerome). You are commanded to not give rein nor yield to the impulse and promptings of wrath, but to beware of doing what your wrath would have you do (Luther).

Instead of sinning in anger, you are to not let the sun go down on your anger. You are to be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. You are to be reconciled with God and with those who have made you angry, rather than giving the devil the opportunity to lead you into other sin because of your anger.

You are told put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and slander and clamour, along with all malice. Bitterness is a resentful attitude of the heart that arises from the belief that you have been treated wrongly. Clamour is angry shouting and malice is an attitude of ill-will towards others and the desire to do them harm. The connection between these can be seen in anger leading to bitterness and angry shouting, to lying and speaking ill of someone, and anger can even lead to the desire to do them harm.

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. How is it that you can forgive someone who has sinned against you? Because God in Christ has forgiven you.

God forgave you all your sins through Baptism, but because you have sinned since Baptism and have been angry and gossiped and slandered and been bitter and shouted angrily and desired harm to others, thus God forgives you again and again. The entire Christian life is a continual return to your Baptism, a continual drowning of the Old Adam by daily contrition and repentance.

The danger of not daily being sorry for your sins and repenting of them is also mentioned in our text. Impenitence is the same as having a hard heart and being calloused. When sins are constant and repeated without repentance, you begin to be calloused to the sins, and your hard heart does not feel the accusations of your conscience. You start to argue that it is no big deal that you talk about someone behind his back; that you are justified in your anger; that your bitterness is right because you have been mistreated. That is not the way you learned Christ! Repent. Repent and believe the Gospel.

For you, Jesus suffered bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and slander and malice. Jesus was treated unfairly but He did not become bitter. In anger and wrath Jesus was stricken, smitten, and afflicted. Even crucified He still bore clamour and slander and malice.

Jesus died on the cross for your sins, but He is not bitter with you. Jesus suffered the righteous and just wrath and anger of God over your sins, but He is not wrathful or angry with you. Jesus suffered for your sins of anger and slander and gossip and lying but He bears you no ill-will.

Jesus is tender-hearted, forgiving you all your sins because He loved you and gave Himself up for you, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. His fragrant offering covers the foulness of your sins.

Daily repentant of your sins. Be sorry for your sins and trust in Jesus for forgiveness because He will never withhold it from you. He gives you His body and blood for the forgiveness of all your sins and through them strengthens you to eternal life, so you know you have His forgiveness.

In Baptism you have put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. All your sins are covered. You are righteous and holy. Thus, you do not walk as the pagans do. You walk as a child of God because your sins are covered by the blood of Jesus. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.