Monday, June 6, 2011

Read the Fine Print

Here is my sermon for this coming Wednesday, the week of Exaudi, the Sunday after Ascension. The text is the Gospel according to John, from the 15th and 16th chapters, where Jesus says:
"But when the Helper comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who proceeds from the Father, He will testify of Me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning.

"These things I have spoken to you, that you should not be made to stumble. They will put you out of the synagogues; yes, the time is coming that whoever kills you will think that he offers God service. And these things they will do to you because they have not known the Father nor Me. But these things I have told you, that when the time comes, you may remember that I told you of them. And these things I did not say to you at the beginning, because I was with you."
If you sign a contract, it behooves you to read the fine print. Whether you’re taking out a loan, starting a lease, or accepting a job offer, some of the terms may not be self-evident. You don’t want to be surprised when the bank repossesses your firstborn child. You don’t want to find out too late that having your brakes overhauled at Dobbs voids the warranty on your car. Salesmen accent the positive. They want to close the sale. Not that they’re dishonest, they just won’t volunteer some information you may want to know. So you need to read the fine print.

That goes for Christianity, too. Before you pass the point of no return, there’s some information you need to know. A less than scrupulous preacher might not mention those things unless you twist his arm. And there are really dishonest ones who skim right over the hidden costs of being a disciple of Jesus. But Jesus was straightforward with his disciples, and he told them what the score was going to be. “These things I have spoken to you,” he said, “that when their hour comes, you may remember that I told you of them”—and, “that you may be kept from stumbling.” He showed them the fine print.

Our vows of faithfulness obligate Pastor Landskroener and every Lutheran pastor to do the same. Before we confirm a child or adult, we lay it all before them. You’re about to take a very serious oath, we say. You’re about to swear, on the pains of death, that you will abide faithfully by the teachings you have learned. You will endure anything, even death, rather than fall away. Should we hide from you the fact that there may be much to endure? Shouldn’t we tell you, so that having been warned you may recognize the things of which we speak when they happen, and so you may be kept from stumbling over them.

Being a Christian isn’t guaranteed to be rosy. Chances are, you will pay a price in this life because you belong to Jesus. Your commitment will be tested. Your faith will be proved by suffering. How that will happen, I do not know. But don’t buy the line some would like to sell to you; don’t believe it when they say the better the Christian, the better off he will be in this life. Remember the apostles to whom Jesus said: “They will make you outcasts from the synagogue; but an hour is coming when everyone who kills you will think he is offering service to God.” Things were about to go bad, and then they would get worse. Imagine that! The saints of blessed memory, whose names we honor as heroes of the faith—they suffered more for the name of Christ than any other Christians. What does that tell you about the idea that good faith makes for the good life?

And consider the Christians just after them, when the church’s zeal was lively, and its unity was wondrous; when love of the truth and joy of salvation were young and fresh. They were the ones crucified, tortured, imprisoned, fed to lions because of their faith in Jesus. It was a golden age of the church, yet there was no lack of hardship. Or consider the suffering of the first generation of Lutherans: besieged by armies, misused by their rulers, plagued by controversy, ridden with religious pests. Since his covenant with the Old Testament Jews, God has never promised his faithful ones peace and prosperity in our time. Rather, if we follow the example of our forefathers, we can expect no better than they got.

You’ve been warned. Assuming you learned from an honest pastor, you’ve always known what is possible for Christians in this life. If not, or if you don’t remember, maybe you should take out that fine print and read it once more. We follow the example of Christians who suffered; they followed the example of Christ who suffered. And if we expect anything in this life but sorrow and horror and hardship, we have not read the fine print about the cost of discipleship in Christ. Here are some more paragraphs of it: “Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Again Jesus said: “I send you out as sheep among wolves; therefore be shrewd as serpents, and innocent as doves. But beware of men; for they will deliver you up to the courts, and scourge you in their synagogues; and you shall even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles… Brother will deliver up brother to death, and a father his child; children will rise up against parents, and cause them to be put to death. And you will be hated by all on account of My name, but he who has endured to the end will be saved.”

And again: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth. I have come not to bring peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be members of his household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who does not take his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. He who has found his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for my sake shall find it.”

Or finally, Jesus said, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” Jesus aimed these words chiefly at the apostles; and they came true chiefly for the apostles. The highest mark we can aim for as Christians is to be like them—and therefore, to suffer like them.

And yet we do not. In this day and age it almost sounds silly to talk about trouble and pain. Other than daily frustrations that everyone experiences, we have nothing to complain about. Indeed, we experience less suffering than any people in history. We are comfortable, well-fed, healthy, and all things necessary for our material happiness is within reach. To suffer on account of Jesus is unheard of in our experience. Is that a sign that the world has become more Christian than it was? Or is it a sign, perhaps, that we Christians are less than faithful? Do we shrink back from the daring confession of faith that the Apostles risked? Are we ashamed to speak, act, and interact differently with the society around us? Are we embarrassed to stick out of the crowd? Do we suffer less because the name of Jesus is not written all over us, as on the early Christians? Maybe so. Maybe we are too comfortable with our comfort. Maybe we’d rather not deal with the fine print.

But is that desirable? Is comfort and safety really what the church needs? Or is the fact that people are not crowding into the church perhaps because they see no difference between Christians and everyone else? Is our fear of being different—to be dangerously, recklessly faithful to our Lord—the reason the church does not grow? I do not mean this of our parish only. I could ask this of all Christians everywhere—except in a few places like Kenya or Nigeria, where people suffer hardship and even violence for the sake of Christ. They’re willing to pay a price for God’s free gifts, and by golly, they’re paying it. FREE GIFTS, I say: forgiveness, eternal life, the comfort of Word and Sacrament.

All these come to them, and to us, by God’s pure grace. But God’s Word is the most important thing in their lives; for us, it comes after everything else. To them, hearing the Gospel is worth going days without a meal, walking through miles of shin-deep mud, being menaced by bandits and soldiers, by dangerous beasts, and possibly by their un-Christian neighbors. All this to stand for hours in smothering heat with little more than a canopy over their heads and dirt under their feet—yet they are overjoyed for the opportunity every few weeks to receive God’s gifts. For us, the word of God is far easier to obtain. Is it worth that much less? We live minutes away from church, and spend a few minutes a week there in safety and comfort, if that isn’t too inconvenient. So I ask you, who is better off?

American Christians have become very cozy with the culture around us, though the coziness doesn’t go both ways. The press is no longer shy about portraying Christians as fools or fanatics. Hollywood’s been at that game for years. Most schools from pre-K on up work fulltime to install un-Christian and anti-Christian attitudes. It’s time to ask yourself: Am I prepared to be branded an extremist or a nuisance to society because of my beliefs? Am I prepared for the day when it will be hard to find a church where the faithful worship in freedom? Am I prepared for the fine print to become bold reality?

I do not tell you this to scare you, but so you may remember when these things happen that Jesus told you about them—and so you may not stumble. I tell you this so you will recognize the blessing Jesus speaks of when he says, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.” I tell you this so when the world shows its true colors you will not be disturbed, but you will say: “Aha! This is exactly what was supposed to happen!” And I tell you this, so you may know how important Jesus’ promise of the Holy Spirit is.

“When the Helper comes,” he says, “whom I will send you from the Father, even the Spirit of Truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness of Me—and you will bear witness also.” Jesus said this to the apostles, who had been with him from the beginning. We have received the same Spirit through them, as the church has handed down to us their words and the words of Jesus. We are not alone; the Holy Ghost, the promise of the Father, is with us, because we belong to Christ. How cleverly or how vividly we tell the story is not what makes disciples; it is the Holy Ghost who bears witness in that story. It is not our techniques or talents that grow the church; it is the Holy Ghost who plants, waters, and raises faith where he wills.

We are not given an inert message which we must bring to life by our powers and actions. Rather, we are given a Gospel and Sacraments that act like bottled lightning. We cannot harness them or control them, we cannot make them do what we want; but when we turn them loose, tremendous power is at work. It is not in us to move mountains or divide seas. It is not in us to galvanize the faithful or impress the unchurched with our love and commitment. Nor is it in us to endure hardship and make sacrifices, to keep the faith and save the world. We have inherited the Holy Spirit, and we live and move in Him, because the Gospel is our life.

If something else has taken first place in your life, look back on what your Lord has promised you and read the fine print. There is nothing in the world worth having or doing, that would take us away from Christ. Only he gives us freedom from our sins; only he promises to raise us from the dead and take us to heaven. Nothing in this life is more precious than what Jesus gives us—and that is ours for free. He paid for it with his body and blood. We have God’s favor again; we have a hope that overcomes all the threats and injuries this world deals us. And we have the Holy Spirit as down-payment on the final delivery of what Jesus bought for us. What can stand in his way?

But free though it be, there are costs—and we make them freely known to you. There is a price for being in Christ. It is not a price you must pay to God, but a price that the world will exact from you. To make the payments, you need every bit of what God richly pours out in Word and Sacrament. God willing, you may convince some of those who exact that price from you, to sign on and pay the same price or more. So it was with St. Paul, who first persecuted Christ and then was persecuted with him. But Paul was not ignorant of the costs of discipleship. He goes on at length in 2 Corinthians describing some of the cost he paid. Yet Jesus paid all our costs for us. So we need nothing—and so there is nothing we cannot afford to lose. Let the world take what it will; for at the bottom of all the fine print, there is written in Jesus’ blood: “Paid in full—on Calvary.”

O Christ, grant us the Spirit of Truth, through your word of truth. And so may we stand firm, without stumbling, when everyone rejects us, casts us out, and hurts us thinking they are doing God a favor. Let us abide wholly in your holy truth, that as you were with us from the beginning, we may be with you at the end. Glory be to You, O Christ. Amen.

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