Saturday, June 11, 2011

Other-Worldly Peace

Here, as a historical relic, and as a supplement to my sermon for tomorrow, is the sermon for Pentecost that I preached during my first full year as a pastor. It also happened to be Confirmation Sunday in the congregation I then served; thus many of my remarks are directed at the three confirmands, who are in my prayers today, a decade later!
After these last weeks and their high-pressure memory-work marathon, the three young people in the front row might well breathe a sigh of relief. When everyone is done looking at them, when they have survived this rite of passage called confirmation, when they have tasted the Lord’s body and blood for the first time, they might breathe another sigh of relief. The parents who have driven them to class and pushed them to study their catechism may also breathe easier. There is a sense of accomplishment, a sense of hard-earned peace.

But on this day of Pentecost, I urge all of you, especially Emily, Matthew, and Sara, to keep a more important peace in view. There is a peace more precious than peace of mind, more wholesome than rest from your labors, a peace more vital to your well-being than family or social harmony. Even if bombs begin falling around you, even if you are harassed and hounded, even if heaven and earth tear themselves apart, you still have that peace. That is what Jesus means when he says, “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, nor let it be fearful.”

What I mean is other-worldly peace—peace in heaven, peace with God. This peace is not disturbed by the afflictions of the body or the temptations of the soul. We find it only through faith in our Savior, Jesus Christ. Though we can experience some of it in this life, we will perfectly know this peace only in the life of the world to come. We strive for it; we hope on it; we look forward to its final unveiling in the kingdom of God. It is the reward promised to those who remain faithful in Christ; as the word says: “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be delivered”; and, “He that has endured to the end shall be saved.”

All mankind searches for peace. But too often, any peace they find is an illusion. Most people’s faith, if they have any, is misplaced. Human institutions crumble and fall. Human accomplishments blow away in the winds of time. Beauty fades, and possessions do you no good in the grave. There is no cause, no faith, no thing that you can take with you beyond this life. Our only hope is in Christ, the Son of the living God.

He has dealt with the reason our world yearns for peace. He has healed the primeval conflict between God’s offended majesty and man’s offending sinfulness. He has reconciled you to your Lord. He bridged the chasm between earth and heaven, for he is at once God begotten of the Father, and man born of woman. In Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s son, God is at one with man. That Son of God presented himself to the Father, a pleasing sacrifice to make up for your sins. He shed his blood and died for you on the cross. If there be any doubt whether his suffering and death made peace with God, He rose from the dead on the third day. Then He returned to heaven as true God triumphant over death and hell; yet he also returned as the true Man, Jesus Christ, to rule over all things at God’s right hand.

So as certain as anything can be, it is certain that God is pleased with man, and that your sins are forgiven. You, fellow redeemed, are already at peace with God. You will taste of heavenly peace today, when you eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus, with which He secured that peace for you. And when you see your Savior face to face, you will know peace full, free, and without end. That inheritance has been yours since your baptism; that is the hope I have tried to teach you, and the faith in which you renew your vows today. The peace you have earned, by finishing your memory assignments, is nothing compared to the peace Jesus gives you for free. Never let anything come between you and your Savior; never take your eyes off that prize.

Again, hear what Jesus said: “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives, do I give to you.” With these words, you could say he confirmed his disciples. He bestowed His peace on them as a gift, not because of their faithfulness. For soon afterward, Judas betrayed Jesus, soldiers arrested him. The disciples fled and scattered. Peter denied knowing Jesus. After the Lord was crucified and buried, the eleven huddled behind locked doors. They didn’t understand God’s Word yet. They were scared by events, they tottered in shock and disbelief, they expected arrest, imprisonment, death—anything but Jesus rising from the dead. Yet Jesus had already given his peace to them, and it was theirs. You know what that means? That means that the peace Jesus gave to them, before all this happens, wasn’t “peace of mind” or a promise that “everything is going to be OK” on this side of heaven. The peace Jesus gave them was peace with God—in other words, the forgiveness of sins. “My peace I give to you” means, “I forgive you all your sins.”

Another thing now becomes clear. The disciples weren’t done sinning, stumbling, and being confused and discouraged. The worst was yet to come. But Jesus’ peace means that they would keep getting forgiveness from the Lord, just as surely as they kept needing it. This “confirmation” of the disciples doesn’t mean they knew everything or were ready to go it alone; it meant precisely the opposite. It meant that they needed Jesus’ help always, and he promised them that they would get it. Obviously they still had much to learn, there was room for growth. This didn’t take away from their inheritance in heaven, from the eternal peace Jesus promised—but before reaching it, they had miles to go, lessons to learn, suffering and toil to face. And so do you.

You will certainly not be a greater Christian than Peter, James, or John. But Jesus has given you the same promises. He pledged his Holy Spirit to you in baptism; He promised to be with you always; He has gone to his Father’s house to prepare a mansion for you. He left his otherworldly peace to sustain you through this world’s turmoil, and to await you in heaven. What this means is that He has left His Word and Sacraments to keep giving you his forgiveness, because you will keep needing it; and to keep teaching you the faith, because you still have much to learn; and finally, to lead you to the peace eternal in heaven. So today, just as Jesus confirmed the disciples, he will likewise confirm in you the peace of God which passes all understanding. But don’t for a minute think it’s all over.

No, young sisters and brother, you are not at the end of your journey. You have not learned all you can, or all you need to learn. Like the eleven, you still have a long road to walk, with pothole after pothole to muddle through. You have suffering ahead of you, tests of your commitment to Christ, sins to repent of, urgent questions to ask and requests to make—and you may not get the answers you expect or like. But whatever the answers may be, God’s design for you is clear. He is leading you to enjoy the other-worldly peace your Savior purchased for you with his body and blood.

What remains ahead is clear from Jesus’ next words. “If you loved Me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father… And now I have told you before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe.” Jesus bestows peace and wishes joy on men who are about to be dismayed. They were dismayed when Jesus went to the Father in his death on the cross, and again when the risen Lord went away to sit at God’s right hand. But these should bring joy, not sorrow; for in them we have peace with God.

“I will not tell you much more, for the ruler of this world is coming, and he has nothing in Me; but that the world may know that I love the Father, and as the Father commanded me, even so I do.” Jesus was about to be betrayed into evil hands, mistreated, and killed. The ruler of this world was at work—meaning Satan, who has his fingers in every pie. Satan is enraged by the preaching of the Gospel, and thrashes violently against it.

Consider the troubles of the apostles and Paul, as they preached the Gospel throughout the world. They were tortured and killed in the most horrible ways. The early Christians were persecuted and martyred in large numbers. Luther and many faithful Christians faced opposition from the church itself. So don’t be surprised when, the more you practice your faith, the more you experience problems. There’s nothing wrong with your faith because of it, God’s Word isn’t any less reliable. Rather, it’s to be expected that the devil will kick and bite in mute rage wherever the Gospel holds sway, wherever God’s kingdom gains ground. He cannot harm you, he cannot take away your other-worldly peace, as long as you remain in Christ. Since Jesus was obedient to the Father, even to the point of death on the cross, the ruler of this world can do what he may—God’s peace remains yours.

But this peace does not zap you out of the blue. It must be fed. Hear again what Jesus says in our Gospel: “If anyone loves Me, He will keep my word. My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; what you hear is not My Word, but the Father’s who sent Me.”

So don’t just count on the fact that you were confirmed, as your ticket to everlasting peace. You can walk out of this church today and, like two-thirds of confirmands, never come back again. But don’t do that. Don’t confuse the peace of “being done with confirmation” with the eternal peace in store for Christians. Don’t think that, once you’ve done this, you have nothing else to learn, nothing else to get from the church. If you think that, you shouldn’t be here, for confirmation by its very nature is a vow to be a committed Christian, to love Jesus. And as Jesus pointed out, those who love Him keep His word. Only those who abide in Jesus’ Word, who continue to draw benefits from it, will find the peace of God. You cannot live a year without food; you cannot live a month without water. You will not inherit heaven’s peace without being strengthened and nourished along the way.

A baby will not live long, if it takes one drink of its mother’s milk, decides that’s enough, and refuses to eat from then on. A new car will not run long, if you fuel it up only once, and expect that first tank of gas to carry you everywhere. Nor will you live eternally, if you take this first taste of Jesus’ body and blood, but do not come back often to receive it again. To say to yourself, “I’m done! I don’t need to go to church anymore!” defeats the purpose of confirmation. To say, “I’ve had the Lord’s Supper once, that’ll do for me,” defeats the purpose of receiving the Sacrament for the first time. Your confirmation and your first Communion today, means that you have started on a road on which you need to continue. As long as you keep Jesus’ Word—as long as you keep hearing it, learning it, receiving forgiveness from it, eating and drinking it—you are God’s child, bound for eternal peace.

Again, Jesus says: “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 that I said to you.” The promise of the Holy Spirit came true for the church that first Christian Pentecost, and the Spirit continues to be poured out to this day. He is poured out through the Word and Sacraments to which you three are about to pledge yourselves. He is poured out in the name of Jesus, put on you in baptism; He is poured out in the blood of Jesus, which bears witness of his suffering and dying for you. The Holy Spirit is the reason you must keep Jesus’ Word, the reason you need to live by your confirmation vows from now on. He is the one who works God’s power on you when you hear the word. He knits faith into your heart. He convinces you that your sins are forgiven. He gives you strength to face the evil one, he sustains you through life’s turmoils and assures you of the peace Jesus promised.

For this reason I urge every one of you, and especially Sara, Emily, and Matt, to make good your vows—or rather, to receive the fulfillment of God’s vows to you. Make this confirmation day really mean something. Let today be the start of a diet on God’s good things, that will sustain you into everlasting life. Make your recent lessons in God’s Word the beginning, not the end, of your Gospel journey. Make use of God’s gifts often, that he may build on the foundation that so far has been laid. Do not quiver at the tasks you may be called to do, or at the sorrows you may be obliged to suffer; do not be discouraged if the answers to your prayers do not live up to your every desire. For when this race is finished, and the thread of this life is cut, you who remain in Christ by faith will be saved.

What you know in part here, will be completely revealed over there. What you here yearn for, without satisfaction, you will there receive in full. The wedding is arranged, but the date no one knows, when Jesus will come and take you to the rest promised to the faithful. Only then will you fully see the peace Jesus now gives us in part; therefore we need to make constant withdrawals against that future, perfect peace, in order to make it through the present. Let the Lord supply strength to your weakness, faith to your doubt, forgiveness to your sins, life to your dying and decaying body. Do not settle for this world’s peace; let this day mark a new commitment, to seek your peace from Him whose gifts cannot fail. Let it be a true confirmation, confirming that you will keep Jesus’ words—so that the Holy Spirit may lead you into all truth. To the Triune God be all the glory!

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