Here is my sermon for tomorrow, the Day of Pentecost, when I will be filling the pulpit at my LCMS church in St. Louis city south. The lessons for the day are Genesis 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21; and John 14:23–31.Look at the members of this church, or any Christian congregation, and what will you see? One classic answer, given by people who don’t like going to church, is “a bunch of holier-than-though sticks in the mud.” And that answer is often true. Many Christian individuals and organizations are very proud of themselves. They think that if they open a parish meeting with a prayer that the Holy Spirit would guide them, then anything they decide to do is God’s will and must succeed—though they often make up their minds what they want to do without consulting God. They congratulate themselves for having built such a nice church; they believe in their powers, gifts, or plans to make it grow, and if it does grow they may let God share the credit—though mainly out of politeness. And if the results are discouraging, they fight back with human solutions because they can’t bring themselves to trust the power of God’s Word.
This nasty pride is especially seen in many churches that have strayed from the Word of God, where you can listen to a month worth of sermons without hearing Jesus’s name, except in passing; without being confronted by biblical teachings that might make anyone uncomfortable; without even hearing the Bible qutoed, except perhaps one phrase repeated over and over. But their message is so relevant and so welcome to the ears of so many people that other churches are either losing members to them, or rushing to imitate them. Yet under the veneer of success is something rather disgusting: a lack of care for individual members, especially the poor, afflicted, and dying; a tendency to value people according to the size of their pocketbook; a focus on keeping new members flowing in while doing nothing to stop old members gushing out. For all their outward success, such churches often prove to be built on a weak foundation, with dry-rot in the walls.
King Solomon writes, “Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.” He isn’t talking about hiring the right contractor to build your split-level. He’s talking about the church. Hear it again: “Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.” These words come from Psalm 127, a “pilgrim song” for those who going up to Jerusalem to present offerings in the temple. They are singing about the church. And the lessons for the Day of Pentecost resonate with their song.
In Genesis 11, Moses gives us the strange story of the Tower of Babel. At this point in the early-morning gloom of civilization, the descendants of Noah had increased in number and advanced in culture till it seemed nothing could stop them doing what they chose. It was a crucial point when men’s pride had reached so far that it seemed impossible to check them, for they were all one big family and spoke one language.
It’s not that they threatened God; but nothing threatened them. So they could disregard God’s commands, such as “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1). They didn’t have to listen to Him; they didn’t have to believe in Him, or worship Him. Their tower was going to be a temple—not to God, but to themselves. They meant to overthrow God and create their own perfect world, and who could stop them? Well, God showed them who: each other! Once a language barrier stood between them, the people split up into smaller groups. Now every man was a stranger, working at cross-purposes, frustrating each other’s plans. And so the tower they had begun to build was abandoned, unfinished. Indeed, “unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.”
On the first Christian Pentecost, however, the confusion of Babel was reversed. I say “Christian” Pentecost because, as you may know, Pentecost was already a holy day for the Jews. It commemorated Moses’ delivery of the Law to the children of Israel. It was one of those holy days on which people made pilgrimages to the temple, and that’s why Jerusalem was full of devout Jews from all over the world, marveling to hear Jesus’ disciples preach in the languages of their home countries. Now God was breaking down the barrier He had set up at Babel. By this miraculous mingling of languages, God began to gather people from every corner of the world, and to build them up together in a living temple: His church.
The miracle of Pentecost is still going on today. It may not be as visibly evident as it was then; but I assure you, it is so. Today, in cities, towns, and rural communities across the country, and in countries around the world, the people of God are gathered in the house of God. They are one people, though they come from virtually every nation, tribe, and tongue on the face of the earth. They worship one God, though He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each Person being the whole God with none left over. And this one God has but one house, though the world has more Christian cathedrals, churches, and preaching stations than a dog has fleas. In each separate place where the faithful gather, the whole church is present. With them we are one people, one family, one body, with one head—who is Christ. And with them we speak one language—which, if you will bear with me, I will call the LANGUAGE OF PEACE.
“Unless the LORD builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.” This is the house that the Lord built. I do not speak of this physical building, as beautiful and functional as it is. I am speaking of us as a spiritual house built out of living stones (1 Peter 2:5). We are mortared together in such a way that even the distinction between Jew and Gentile no longer applies, as Saint Paul writes: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity. And He came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near. For through Him we both have access by one Spirit to the Father.”
As Paul goes on, the point becomes even clearer: “Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:13–22).
Notice what Paul says about the house of God. Christ is the cornerstone. The foundation is the apostles and prophets, which is to say God’s revelation handed down through them. And it is not a building for us to dwell in; rather, we are the building, in which the Holy Spirit dwells. The Holy Spirit dwells in the household of God because it is founded on God’s Word—particularly, on the message of Christ. Christ is the key to God’s Word; He is the keystone on which the whole church, and every member of it, depends.
And Jesus is all that because of His blood, His flesh, His cross, His death. His blood brought near those who were far off. His flesh brought together as one those who had been alienated. His cross wiped out the Law’s condemnation of us. His death reconciled us to God, destroying the separation caused by our sins, and making peace. This is the message of Christ to which the apostles and prophets bear witness. This is the foundation on which the church stands. This is the keystone of the temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells: Christ was crucified to deliver us from sin and to make us acceptable to God.
This is the language of peace: the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ death on the cross. It is a language spoken in words, when you hear that message proclaimed. But this language of peace also embraces Baptism, in which we share in Christ’s death as we are drowned and buried in water and the Spirit. And this language of peace embraces the Sacrament, where we absorb Jesus’ body and blood into our own. In the Lord’s Supper, it is not as though one person gets this little piece of Jesus and the next person gets that piece; rather, each of us gets the same Christ, and none of Christ is left out.
This is good to know; for if you have trouble being patient, you can be sure that the patience in Jesus will be given to you. If you are wavering in your faith, you can be certain that Jesus’ faithfulness will feed you. If you are bitter and unforgiving, you shall share Christ’s forgiving mercy. If you are proud, you shall taste Christ’s humility. If you are weighted down with knowledge of your sinfulness, or if you feel powerless to resist temptation, know He will give you His strength. But most importantly, know that you are forgiven through His body and blood. The language of the Lord’s Supper says so: “Given for you...shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.”
All that I have said so far is prologue to what Jesus says in today’s Gospel from John 14. On the eve of His suffering and death, what did Jesus want to leave His disciples with? Quote: “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” How does Jesus give us this peace? Quote: “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” How will we keep Jesus’ word? Quote: “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all things that I said to you.” And what does Jesus want His disciples to remember? Quote: “That the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father gave Me commandment, so I do.”
Which is to say: Even in the darkest hour in world history, when the ruler of this world—the devil—was at his strongest, when the powers of the world were united against Jesus, when the sin of the world lay heavily upon Him, the Savior of the world became utterly defenseless, yet obedient unto death, even death on the cross. For us this is news of joy and peace. The Son of God returned to the Father, bearing the wounds of His death for all sin, and presenting us to God as righteous and sinless. The Son of Man ascended to heaven; no greater favor could God bestow on our race. And as the man Jesus reigns in heaven, He is also present with us on earth. This is not just a message; it is a language: a way of thinking and interpreting the world. At the heart of this language is the peace Jesus promised us, an out-of-this-world peace, the peace of God that we call forgiveness.
It is a language taught by the Holy Spirit, who dwells among us while we stand on the message of Christ and Him crucified. This language of peace is precious to us because we are poor, afflicted sinners; but we have forgiveness, healing, and a rich inheritance in Christ. We have all this by faith, which the Holy Spirit has breathed into us. We have the love of God, because we keep the Word of Christ; or rather, because it keeps us. We have peace with God, because we are one body with Jesus Christ, who reigns at the the right hand of the Father. And so the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus!